According to the Vermont Department of Public Service, more than 1,200 Lamoille County properties don’t have access to the internet.
That’s actually a pretty rosy outlook; the majority of places with internet connections don’t have service strong enough to do much more than browse web pages.
Since those broadband statistics are from last year, they reflect what things were like going into the pandemic, when all schoolchildren and many adults suddenly working from home had to rely on whatever internet was available.
Through partnerships with private giants like Microsoft and with smaller organizations, along with state and federal funding, towns have been able to set up various wireless access points so people can at least decamp in their cars and tap into school lessons, receive telehealth services, maybe download a movie or some music to listen to at home.
State Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, said these are Band-Aids when it comes to the big picture — fast internet to everyone in the state — but sometimes a quick fix is better than nothing.
“I think the Band-Aid is absolutely needed right now, not in five years, although it will also be needed in five years — working on both is the answer,” Rogers said. “People need to have their needs met now, but also have a longer-term solution.”
As the public service department works with towns to improve broadband infrastructure, it has also, since the pandemic, worked to get at least one hotspot in every Lamoille County town.
Lea Kilvadyova of the Lamoille County Planning Commission says that, since the pandemic began, Cisco Meraki MR74 outdoor access points have been installed in many towns. Stowe and Morrisville are the outliers, with already-available public internet throughout much of their downtowns.
“There are short-term measures and long-term measures,” Kilvadyova said. “These are short-term things.”
Almost all the towns had some sort of Wi-Fi available already, but the Cisco hardware is meant to broadcast in a fairly wide radius, about 300 feet in all directions, said Rob Fish, the rural broadband technical assistance specialist with the department of public service.
“The idea is to provide students, and residents seeking a place to engage in telehealth, a safe, socially distanced internet connection,” Fish said. “Yes, this is a less than perfect solution to our connectivity woes, but these units have proven helpful in school districts around the state.”
Brian Pena, the IT director for the Lamoille North school district, said he hopes a Cisco unit at Belvidere Central School “brings relief and enjoyment to our Lamoille North friends and families in Belvidere.”
Efforts are underway to find a spot in Eden and one in Johnson, although the latter town already has numerous hotspots. Here are the locations of other recently installed hotspots:
• Hyde Park: Vermont Center for Independent Living
• Jeffersonville: Deer Run Motor Inn
• Elmore: United Methodist Church
• Wolcott: Town Offices
RTO Wireless, based in Framingham, Mass., has partnered with Microsoft to fill in some of the coverage gaps during the COVID-19 crisis. The partnership was forged in mid-April, and the first Wi-Fi installation was done in the Northeast Kingdom town of Wheelock, population a little over 800.
RTO’s CEO Steve Hubbard said Microsoft offered to fund the purchase and installation of the hotspot devices.
“The broadband gap already disproportionately impacts Americans who reside in rural areas. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this problem, preventing many people in rural communities from accessing online learning, telework, telemedicine and other necessary parts of life during this crisis,” said Shelley McKinley, Microsoft vice president general manager of technology and corporate responsibility.
“Hopefully the primary use is by the school kids, because Microsoft and RTO approached them primarily to satisfy the needs for distance learning,” Kilvadyova said.
Rogers said the schools have worked hard and fast to identify which students do and don’t have suitable internet access, and try to adapt. Lamoille South, for instance, was able to get smartphones that can act as internet hotspots to 50 of its students, thanks to a grant from Capstone Community Action.
She said the pandemic might make it easier to sell fellow lawmakers and private industry leaders on getting the state connected.
“It’s about a functional economy, and educating people and getting access to health care,” she said. “It’s not just you so can stream Netflix and watch funny YouTube videos and send cat pictures to each other.”