In 2019, VCRD completed its Community Visit process in Greensboro. Improving broadband and cell service was one of the priorities the community identified through the process. The task force got right to work and have already deployed free WiFi in town. This interview shares their story, as seen in WonderArts news: https://www.wonderartsvt.org/news/2020/5/5/greensboro-free-wifi-goes-live?fbclid=IwAR3EGnybDdFtpCOQ92LBC3zg_7NESqp5-mR4_9StnT78cIndGg1i1dI6RMY.
Last week, Eleanor Guare, writing for the Hardwick Gazette had an opportunity to interview Carol Fairbank, Executive Director of WonderArts and Spark about the new Greensboro Free WiFi project. Here’s the full interview.
EG: I understand WonderArts has recently completed a project to provide free WiFi in the village by installing special equipment in the GUCC bell tower. That’s great news to many! Tell me how this got started.
CF: Internet access has long been a challenge in our region. It’s a prominent part of Greensboro’s town plan, and something that we’re working in several ways to address. Last year, the Vermont Council on Rural Development conducted a community visit, and helped Greensboro identify a series of activities that would help contribute to the vibrancy and livability of our town. Access to high-speed internet quickly emerged as a priority, and the Connected Greensboro Task Force was formed to address it. This dovetails with WonderArts vision to contribute to the vibrancy of our community through equitable access to resources, with a focus on the arts, recreation, technology, and sustainability – and there our partnership began.
EG: What motivated you to initiate this project?
CF: Only 9% of addresses in Greensboro have access to high-speed internet, and our residents are suffering because of it. Internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Now that we’re living through a global pandemic, this has become more true than ever. We need the internet to work and attend school, and to visit with friends and loved ones. And in a town like Greensboro, where there’s no cellular coverage, it can be our only option to connect with emergency services. When WonderArts and Spark became one of the first businesses in Greensboro to get access to high speed fiber service, finding a way to share it was the next logical step to serve the public good.
EG: What hurdles did you encounter?
CF: The only real barrier was the cost of purchasing and installing equipment to make it public. So when Jenna Koloski from VCRD approached our task force with an offer to help fund a small project, we knew this was the right thing to prioritize.
EG: You didn’t do this by yourself I hope – who brought it all together? Tell me about the team.
CF: It takes a village! This project came together very quickly, with a lot of partnership and support. The Connected Greensboro Task Force helped with planning. WonderArts and Spark provided the internet service, and will continue to fund that long term, along with equipment licensing and maintenance. The equipment purchase and installation were funded largely by VCRD, with some support from individual donors. Cisco Meraki supplied the enterprise-grade equipment at a very deep discount. The GUCC hosts the antennas in the bell tower, and has been incredibly supportive of this project from the beginning. Andy Mosedale, who managed Lyndon’s free WiFi project, took care of engineering and installation. And we couldn’t have done it without Ken Johnston, who helped run conduit, pull wire, and conduct final testing.
EG: What can people expect from this?
CF: Anyone in the immediate village area, with line of sight to the bell tower can access free WiFi. All they need to do is open their WiFi connections on their device, and connect to Greensboro Free WiFi. It’s delivered at a relatively short range, so the closer to the church building, the better the signal will be. It reaches parts of the beach, which is so important for safety. And it reaches the green in front of the town offices. We hope this will help support and grow our farmers market, as vendors will now be able to operate point of sale devices to take credit and debit cards. And next, we hope to install a similar antenna in the Bend. We’re currently working with the State of Vermont Rural Broadband Technical Assistance group to explore options to make that happen.
EG: Given the many changes we are making during the pandemic, we’re all adjusting how we serve our community. Our church services are streaming and our coffee hour is in a Zoom room. What’s it like for you at WonderArts?
CF: While the way we work has changed, our commitment to our community has not. We are resilient, and will continue to be the best resource we can be. Right now, that means we’re also spending a lot of time in Zoom rooms. We’re curating and delivering a lot of enrichment for kids and adults through our website, email, and social media. We’re also working to improve our greenspace in Craftsbury to be a place families can go for recreation and outdoor education, and by ensuring Spark continues to support local businesses and community response efforts. Since we are limited in our regular operations, our staff has turned much of our attention to volunteerism and mutual aid. We’re delivering meals and groceries, fabricating personal protection equipment components on our 3D printers, sewing face masks, and making wellness calls to our neighbors. We’ll continue to serve where we are needed most through this pandemic and beyond.
EG: What’s next for WonderArts?
CF: Like everyone, we are meeting new challenges, and making decisions week by week, with guidance from our governor and our local health officers. We hope to have the opportunity to see folks this summer, if it is safe to do so. We fully support our community’s efforts to protect our residents, and will take a creative and cautious approach to bringing people together when the time is right. That might mean keeping groups very small, continued safe distancing, and relying more on our outdoor spaces. The safety of our staff and our community is our first priority, and that will remain our guiding star. We look forward to a future when we can be together again, but in the meantime, at least we can visit one another over free WiFi.