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What Rural Vermont Downtowns Can Do With Super-Fast Internet Bandwidth

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I recently attended the 20th Annual Historic Preservation & Downtown Conference deep in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. This year’s conference had the theme of “Preservation and Community” and was held at the lovely renovated Town Hall building in downtown Brighton which was originally an opera house that had fallen into disrepair. The building, through much effort and many grants from multiple sources, has come back to life as a gorgeous gem that was a fitting backdrop to the conference. You can read about the Opera House renovation project here.

As a proponent of the increased use of digital tools, I was pleased to discover that this was a paperless conference with all attendees encouraged to download the GuideBook app on their mobile devices prior to the event. The Town Hall also had robust Wi-Fi (despite being in the middle of a cellular dead zone), which was very helpful during the conference.

The session that I co-presented was called “Fiber Networks: New Opportunities for Downtowns and Village Centers.” My remarks focused on the power of the Internet to change people’s lives for the better. I did that by relating compelling stories of how the Vermont Digital Economy Project has made a difference throughout Vermont, like how nonprofit advising with the director of a small historical society led to a 28% increase in event donations, how the process of putting in a downtown Wi-Fi zone in Bethel brought the business association, the local school, and the municipal government together, and how an Internet Intern at a local library helped an elderly woman communicate become better connected with her grandchildren. You can find my presentation to the right.

I also took the opportunity to share information provided by the Vermont Telecommunications Authority on the importance of fiber optic networks throughout the state on both broadband and cellular expansion.

The VTA and I were very practical in the information that we provided. By design, this was in stark contrast to the approach taken by my co-presenter, Lars Hasselblad Torres, Vermont’s Director of the Office of the Creative Economy. Lars is a great person to have at any discussion, because he always asks people to look at things through a fresh and strategic lens. Below is a summary of his remarks from our talk at the Preservation and Community Conference.

Vermont has a long tradition of innovation: the impulse to solve a problem in a new way. This tradition is born from equal parts necessity and inspiration. Our vibrant seasonal landscape, and the livelihoods that are derived from it, has been a key driver of this creative and self-reliant attitude.

One product of this legacy is what I call the “idiosyncratic landscape:” a physical and cultural landscape that both preserves a record of our past and inspires both visionary and practical orientations toward the future.

Examples abound: in agriculture, architecture, and energy. Innovations in materials, energy and structural design have enabled Vermonters to extend the growing season to nearly 12 months. Innovation and investments in energy production and efficiency have enabled cities like Burlington to grow without increasing their net energy consumption since the 1980’s. New infrastructure like our state-wide network of electric vehicle charging stations will help us move further off of limited, costly and ultimately unhealthy fossil fuels.

Gigabit fiber is perhaps the most recent innovation to roll out across Vermont’s landscape, preparing the way for a whole new generation of innovators.

Why is gigabit important? There are several reasons, but most important for business is this idea of “symmetry” in access: the difference between upload and download speeds is eliminated. This enables Vermont companies to both produce and host their own data and content, serving it to world-wide customers. While we might not see data centers move into our historic buildings any time soon, the potential for small-scale operations is real. And so is the opportunity to access data centers in nearby markets like Boston, Montreal, or New York City at near real-time speeds.

With this dramatically increased speed, Vermont’s innovators now have the opportunity to innovate on top of a world class infrastructure. Performance is no longer a barrier to product and service delivery. With this comes the opportunity to advance economic development in Vermont’s connected historic towns and villages.

Innovation and creativity love density. And just as we saw a concentration of 19th century industry around transportation and power centers (think “steam”) centers, Vermont’s fiber-ready towns have the opportunity to attract a new generation of businesses to cluster around this asset. New work models like co-working spaces are enabled. New business models, for example those that rely on lightning-fast transactions, become competitive. Experimentation with interactive arts and new kinds of social events becomes possible.

Vermont’s historic buildings that get wired to gigabit fiber networks will be the next feature on Vermont’s idiosyncratic landscape. It will be exciting to see where they are, and what they do to extend Vermont’s legacy as a “cradle of innovation.”

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