Business & Economy

Vernon halts work toward municipal fiber optic network

fiber optic
Proponents of a Vernon fiber optic network, including Munson Hicks, left, and Bronna Zlochiver, second from left, pitch the project at a community meeting in January 2016. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
VERNON – Despite years of planning and research, it appears that a high-speed fiber optic network isn’t coming to Vernon anytime soon.

A committee that had been laying the groundwork for a municipally owned fiber system disbanded this month, citing a lack of interest and support among homeowners and businesses.

Some say the committee’s work won’t be wasted because it could inform future broadband projects. But for those who saw fiber optics as a way to help the town recover from the loss of Vermont Yankee, the end of the project represents a setback for Vernon.

“For me, it’s too bad, because I think we missed an opportunity to move the town forward,” said Munson Hicks, a Vernon resident who had led the fiber optic effort.

The shutdown of Vermont Yankee in December 2014 has spurred a search for solutions in Vernon. The nuclear plant’s tax value is dropping sharply as the site is prepared for decommissioning, and hundreds of high-paying jobs have disappeared.

The town went through a community planning process last year via the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Ideas from those sessions included creation of a village center and community store.

Also, Vernon’s Planning and Economic Development Commission has been exploring ways to boost the town’s tax base. The commission is pushing to “re-energize” Vernon via new power projects, though a natural gas plant proposal fell apart last year when a pipeline project was suspended.

Some thought fiber optics also could play a role. Hicks got the ball rolling a few years ago, and he had the planning commission’s blessing to pursue the idea via a special fiber optic subcommittee.

At a community meeting in early 2016, the subcommittee made its case for a town-owned network. Lightning-fast download and upload speeds could bring increased economic activity, they said, and the system could increase property values at a critical time for Vernon.

“I thought it was something the town could do for itself to encourage growth … and also for people to stay in town,” Hicks said.

Publicly owned fiber optic networks are not a new concept. Hicks and others had pointed to nearby examples such as Burlington Telecom and newer projects in Massachusetts.

Vernon fiber optic advocates talked to several service providers. And in their final report, subcommittee members say they “had considerable input from experts in the field of municipal-based systems throughout the country and have researched the successes and failures of these projects.”

They also reached out to potential regional partners, including the towns of Guilford and Marlboro.

A fiber network reaching homes and businesses in Vernon carried an estimated price tag of $2 million. But that was not a daunting number for supporters of the project, who advocated a municipal bond issue.

“We could have found (the money),” said Bronna Zlochiver, a subcommittee member. “We would have found a way.”

But there were many doubts, some of which surfaced at a meeting last summer. For example, a state telecommunications official pointed out that most Vernon addresses already have access to cable and wondered about the demand for a higher-speed, more expensive broadband network.

If recent community response serves as any guide, that concern was well-founded. Zlochiver said the subcommittee distributed a survey on broadband use in February and received just two replies.

The subcommittee’s membership also has dwindled. Hicks resigned late last year, and there were just two members remaining – with Zlochiver as chairwoman – when the group disbanded this month.

“We feel that, while the benefits are obvious as far as attracting businesses and homeowners to the town, there seems to be little interest in investing in the future of the town in this manner,” subcommittee members concluded in their final report.

Hicks said that lack of interest is short-sighted. While Vernon may have adequate internet speeds now, he believes that in a decade or so, high-speed fiber “will absolutely be necessary.”

By that time, he contended, Vernon will have missed a chance “to provide something no other town (in this region) does.”

But he thinks other obstacles stood in the fiber committee’s way. One is that Vernon, which is considering ways to reduce its budget post-Vermont Yankee, “is not in a spending mood.”

Hicks also fears that, at the federal level, the Trump administration will gut net neutrality rules and thus “will make it that much harder for municipalities” to build their own networks.

Nevertheless, town officials don’t appear to be giving up on the fiber optic concept. Officially, Vernon’s studies been “suspended,” with the subcommittee’s work preserved for future use.

Bob Spencer, Vernon Planning and Economic Development Commission chairman, said officials are working to update the town plan. He expects to incorporate the fiber optic subcommittee’s conclusions into that document.

Those who have been studying fiber optics “did a great job,” Spencer said. “They educated us, and we really appreciate the hard work they put in. They put in a lot of time. I do think, at some point, that work will pay off.”

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