BRATTLEBORO -- Colleges, public libraries, health care providers and schools are among more than 400 community institutions throughout rural Vermont that now have fiber-optic broadband connections. Two Vermont companies won federal economic stimulus grants to complete the project. Students and teachers are among the Vermonters who are benefiting.

"Through stimulus projects, we built a little over 800 miles. It's all built. We are done. We are complete," said Sovernet Communications' CEO Rich Kendall. Sovernet, which is based in Bellows Falls, connected 342 Vermont "anchor institutions." That includes 108 public schools, 40 libraries, 32 colleges, 115 state local government sites, five business parks and 42 health care facilities.

Sue Biolsi’s 5th and 6th graders do research online using their ChromeBooks at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane.
Sue Biolsi's 5th and 6th graders do research online using their ChromeBooks at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane. (Matt Martyn, Windham Central Supervisory Union)
The goal of the stimulus program's broadband build out was to bring high-speed Internet to rural, underserved areas. Sovernet also contributed $12.6 million of its funds to help expand the project, Kendall said.

"We built the network from scratch. The stimulus program was designed to expand broadband into rural areas and we took that very seriously and built a comprehensive network," Kendall said. "We finished up every community anchor at the end of last year. Every community anchor we have promised to serve is being served."

The only work that remains is minor work through the mountains. In addition to the network paid for through the federal stimulus program, Sovernet has built another 100 miles of fiber optic lines, including "a fiber ring around Chittenden County," Kendall said.

In all, Vermont received $174 million in grants and loans through the federal economic stimulus program to expand broadband. Two of these grants, totaling $46 million, were dedicated to connecting "anchor institutions" such as colleges, public libraries, health care providers and schools.

"Vermont may be on the verge of reaping enormous dividends from this historic investment in our future," Sen. Bernie Sanders said of the new fiber optic service. "The ultra-fast Internet offers the chance to dramatically change how we think about education, health care and business."

Teachers throughout Vermont have been able to take advantage of the dramatic changes.

"I have 20 second grade students in my class. High-speed Internet has changed the way I teach," said Patricia Branley, who teaches at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane. "Now every student is assigned a laptop and we are all on-line learning all kinds of things."

Branley uses the high-speed Internet connection to help her students learn how to read.

"My entire class is online at the same time working at their own independent levels," she said.

Branley also takes advantage of the new Internet speeds to help develop math, language arts, science and social studies lessons.

"This was not possible before high-speed Internet," she said. "Trying to get the whole class on at the same time was next to impossible."

Matt Martyn, the directory of technology at the Windham Central Supervisory Union, which includes eight schools, is also impressed.

The Internet speed at the schools has jumped dramatically -- from 1.5 megabytes per second to 50 megabytes per second. Prior to the federally funded fiber optic upgrade, "Massive use of the Internet would simply buckle the Internet service, bringing it to a halt." Now, he said, "We can have an entire classroom of students doing independent and simultaneous streaming media."

"It's been very reliable," Martyn said. "In all respects, the network is outperforming all our expectations. Teachers no longer have to wait or have a backup plan if lessons didn't download as expected."

Alison Sullivan teaches second grade at The Dover School in East Dover. As part of her lessons, she uses the Internet to help get students engaged in reading, writing, spelling, math, science, and social studies. They also learn how to use a Google Drive to share work and complete homework. In addition, students use Google Forms to create surveys and keep track and analyze data on spreadsheets.

"The high-speed Internet allows all of the students to use the internet at once without any lag time or waiting to load programs without interruptions or hesitations due to buffering or streaming," Sullivan said.

Kristen Wilson, who teaches art and computer science at Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, agrees.

"In the past, I was unable to quickly show video examples or tutorials, the connection would time out, and students would get frustrated," Wilson said.

Connecting anchor institutions, like Vermont's schools, to a fiber optic broadband network is also expected to generate an economic boost for the community.

"Because the schools brought fiber optics into town, fiber will also be available for homes and businesses. This is great for long-term economic and community development in Vermont," Martyn said.

Daniel McLean is the senior press advisor for the office of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He can be reached at Daniel_McLean@sanders.senate.gov.