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Costello Commentary: Vermont’s Digital Heroes

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2011-08-10

By Paul Costello
The power of broadband is not in the pipe—infrastructure is but a necessary precondition—it is in the creativity of those who use it.

The broadband dialogue in Vermont has been all about deficit—and rightly so. But with our focus on getting services, let’s be sure we also celebrate the tremendous leadership and vision of Vermont business and community champions who are defining the use of broadband in our state today.

Vermont is home to cutting-edge businesses that are economic drivers on the information highway. Dealer.com, NewsBank, MyWebGrocer, GE Healthcare and IBM are some of VT’s signature leaders. Just as exciting, small rural businesses are figuring out creative ways to ramp up with new products, marketing, and ways to improve services.

New business owner, Duane Sorrell of Middlesex jumped onto the community social network Front Porch Forum and in a month attracted 40 new customers to his local garage. Kevin Crossett at Play it Again Sam and Andrew Brewer at Onion River Sports in Montpelier have vibrant storefronts, but behind the scenes sell guitars and sports equipment respectively in national and even international markets. They’ve figured out how to use on-line sales to boost our downtowns.

Meanwhile, dirt road businesses are trading stocks, designing buildings and selling furniture and artwork. Laura and Al Duey have done remarkable work in helping towns gain access to broadband and use it to build local commerce and community. The Internet Biz Contest they ran in the Northeast Kingdom last year helped develop 100 new businesses models; the winners, from Perennial Pleasures Nursery to Per Guitars, the Lyndon Freight House and Green Mountain Fence are small rural businesses innovating for success.

The Internet flattens the playing field and allows Vermonters to lead from home. Vermont energy companies like Clean Energy States Alliance, the Regulatory Assistance Project and Vermont Energy Investment Corporation lead national and international efforts connecting myriad partners with cutting-edge tools and do it from our downtowns. Then there are the Smart Grid innovators, the Google presence, the farm and art festival leaders, and groups like the Newport Renaissance Corporation that are launching new digital tools to attract tourists, bolster small businesses and build the Vermont brand.

Local heroes are leading community efforts like Wireless Woodstock, the Poultney Public Library and Town of West Rutland which have all opened downtown WiFi zones—with services soon to come in towns like Bristol and Ludlow.

We need to celebrate folks who are building community on line—like Michael Wood-Lewis at Front Porch Forum—and the local leaders who galvanize these networks, like Susan Clark in Middlesex and Nancy Wilson in Bristol. We need to recognize the creative ways schools are advancing curricula with tools for the 21st century—like the Digital Wish program. With help from the Snelling Center, municipalities are building state-of-the-art websites to unite public information and advance e-government in Pownal, Sunderland, Sandgate and Cambridge, towns that never had websites before.

Led by Vermont’s Department of Libraries, local libraries throughout Vermont are bridging the digital divide by upgrading equipment and services to meet the exploding demand for high-speed access. Some, like the Martha Canfield Library in Arlington, are going the extra mile to become e-training centers; others, like Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol, are employing a mobile netbook lab to provide Internet and computer education for residents.

All these efforts add up. While we fight our long battle for services, let’s make our story one of progress, not backwardness. We are in the game. We have the collective vision and we have the champions to make rural towns dynamic centers of creative economic and community development.

Let’s stay true to our place—but use the best tools and technologies to prosper in doing so. Let’s add up the inspiring story of Vermont, even if some of it is still hopes and dreams, and make it so.

Paul Costello is Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development which manages the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project.