ADDISON COUNTY — While nearly all Vermonters rely on the Internet to stay on top of business, schooling or their social lives, no group is more dependent on fast, reliable Internet service than telecommuters.
“I spend most of the day connected remotely to a system that I do 99 percent of my work on,” said Addison resident Brad Clark. He’s the IT director for RetailVision, a magazine sales promotion company that last fall closed its office in Middlebury and moved out of state.
“I also need to be able to connect remotely to other employees’ systems to assist them with problems they experience,” Clark added. “Sometimes their description over the phone of the problem is not enough, and I need to see it firsthand.”
Over the past decade more and more Vermonters have gained the capability of tapping into work computers and telecommuting because of the expanding reach of high-speed, broadband Internet services in the Green Mountain State.
Gov. Peter Shumlin late last month reported that Vermont’s high-speed broadband network has expanded to reach an estimated 282,000 locations since 2010, and is poised to connect to another 12,500 in the coming months.
Singling out Karen Marshall, who for the past few years has let the effort to push broadband as chief of Connect Vermont, Shumlin announced that Vermont was on track to have broadband access in every home and business by the end of 2013.
“Karen (Marshall) and Connect Vermont have done a remarkable job of working with telecommunications companies across the state and across the nation to ensure households and employers have the Internet access they need for education, business, telecommuting, shopping and all the other things people worldwide turn to the Internet for,” Shumlin said.
The even better news? Addison County is already there.
In a January interview, Marshall (who last week took on a new job as president of VTel Data Network), said that around 17,000 addresses in Addison County already have broadband access, 175 “pending” addresses are set to have broadband by the year’s end, and one lone address in Connect Vermont’s database had yet to be given a plan for service — and Marshall said they were working on it.
“You folks have a couple of really good providers,” Marshall told the Independent, citing Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom in particular. “All in all, things are in pretty great shape in Addison County.”
CHANGES IN SERVICE
Though Clark has been telecommuting full-time only since RetailVision shut down its Middlebury center late in 2012, he had been telecommuting “as needed” for more than 14 years. He has noticed a definite change in the kind of service available in Vermont.
“When I first started doing remote access during off hours, I was dialing directly into a modem at my employer so I could do maintenance tasks and some remote desktop access,” Clark recalled. “You would have to wait for the screen to refresh to make sure what you had typed actually appeared on the remote system.”
Clark said he signed up for DSL high-speed Internet access “immediately” when he found out it was available and said he has been satisfied with service so far.
DSL service works best for those who access it near their area’s telecommunications service hub, however, and those who live further away from the hub can experience markedly different Internet speeds from the same service.
Vergennes resident Tom Brooks said improving wire-based Internet access satisfies only one part of the equation. The president of web design and programming company Button Systems Inc. in Castleton has been telecommuting for 11 years and said his experience with cable Internet from Adelphia and Comcast’s Xfinity service has been satisfactory. But he said that access to wireless data networks still leaves much to be desired.
“If you’re in Addison County like we are, telecommuting using mobile devices is considerably more difficult because the coverage area is sparse, aside from AT&T and Verizon,” Brooks said. “Even then, their high-speed mobile coverage is lacking outside of Chittenden County.”
Brooks believes that the state should include cellular data network coverage in addition to their efforts to expand broadband, and at least one of his fellow telecommuters agrees.
“Timeliness is everything in today’s business world,” said Clark’s colleague Shannon Haggett. The Vergennes resident also stayed on after RetailVision closed its Vermont office and is the company’s director of marketing and publisher programs.
“So long as we are able to keep pace with the rest of the world, we’ll be OK,” Haggett said. “If the state continues to make this a high-profile priority and keeps the pressure on for providers to expand and improve services, we may keep up.”
MORE HURDLES AHEAD
Despite that rosy forecast, state officials urged Vermonters to continue to report “black holes” in the system. The areas in Vermont that have not yet gotten high-speed Internet are the “far-flung and remote” areas with lower-than-usual population density, said Marshall. Reporting areas that don’t have coverage will help Connect Vermont make a final push toward its goal of 100 percent connectivity by the end of 2013.
According to Marshall, there were 256,343 locations with high-speed broadband access in 2010, with about 37,761 lacking service. She said that as of last June, 282,066 locations were served by a high-speed provider (just over 95 percent of locations), 12,494 were in the process of receiving service (4.2 percent) in December, and 505 remain challenges.
Shumlin made the point that getting to universal broadband is a key driver for jobs in Vermont.
Haggett said that without broadband his job would have left Vermont along with RetailVision.
“I work with specialty magazine publishers throughout the U.S.,” he said. “Part of that is communicating words, numbers and images in real time — often while I’m on the phone with them. Without a reliable way to share that information in a timely manner, I wouldn’t have a job here.”