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Remote Vt. towns getting high-speed Internet onramp

NORTON, Vt. - With dial-up Internet connections as slow as 12 bits per second, students in Vermont's northeast corner generally don't try to take on-line courses. That could change, now that this hamlet by the Canadian border has a new onramp to the information superhighway.

"We will be able to have a normal life," Kenn Stransky, a member of the Norton Selectboard and Planning Commission and the School Board for the Essex-Northeast Supervisory Union, said yesterday.

Without it, you can't take an online college class when you can't count on being able to send homework in, he said.

"It'll open up unbelievable worlds for my students," said Stransky, who also teaches in the adult education program in Canaan.

Many of the area's elderly have been forced out of their homes because they've been unable to hook up heart monitors and other medical equipment to the Internet, he said.

At an afternoon ceremony on the steps of the Norton Town Hall, across Vermont Route 14 from the border station leading to Quebec, about 14 people gathered to celebrate the arrival of broadband Internet access to the remote Northeast Kingdom outpost.

From faster processing of paperwork at the tiny US border station, to allowing doctors to view X-rays from their offices without having to go the hospital, to letting vacationers hook into their employers' networks, the effects will be big, said Maureen Connolly, development director with the Economic Development Council of Northern Vermont.

"It's going to impact the quality of people's lives whether they ever use a cellphone or a computer," said Connolly, who dreamed up the project, later dubbed North-Link, in 2002.

"Basically it's a utility just like electricity or telephones," said John Watson of the Orleans-North Essex Community Partnership. "If you don't have it, you're behind."

With $10.5 million in federal grant money secured mainly by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the North-Link project is stringing 375 miles of fiber optic cable in three loops touching Vermont's eight northernmost counties.

The North-Link project dovetails with, but was in the works before the Legislature created the Vermont Telecommunications Authority this year with the power to spend up to $40 million in bond money to support deployment of broadband Internet and cellphone service to underserved parts of the state.

Connolly recited an often-heard lament in an interview yesterday: Verizon, Comcast, and other major telecommunications players have been reluctant to deploy modern technology in places like Norton, which has a year-round population about 70.

"There isn't a good business case up here for private entities to build a network," she said.

So the council stepped in. Connie Stanley-Little, the council's executive director, said the aim was to provide infrastructure that would let the private sector flourish.

"We created an open-access network," she said, adding that she hopes a range of Internet service providers step in to provide the last mile or few miles of connection between the fiber-optic backbone and people's homes and businesses.

In Norton, Brattleboro-based Great Auk Wireless has already built an antenna atop the town office building to link individual users with the network.

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