A small town in central Vermont builds a wi-fi network for its downtown, providing students, businesses and residents with a new way to get online. For the town of 2,000, that means more opportunity -- and less time in the parking lot of the pizzeria.
Students in the Bethel, Vermont, won’t have to gather outside a local pizzeria or library at night, trying to finish up their homework anymore. Thanks to a free, public wi-fi zone called the Bethel Connection, students and the rest of the town of 2,000 in central Vermont will have other options for getting online.
The new public broadband network covers Bethel’s downtown through four access points using equipment that can withstand heat, cold and bad weather. Each device beams a signal about 200 yards.
The wi-fi zone was installed thanks to the Vermont Digital Economy Project, a part of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. The project is being funded by a federal grant from the Economic Development Administration, along with substantial in-kind support from IBM, Microsoft and other partners.
Before the new wi-fi network, the go-to place in Bethel for free Internet was a pizzeria called Cockadoodle. The owner left his wi-fi router on all night, so people would park next to the closed pizzeria and use the wi-fi from their cars after hours. The same thing happened at the Bethel Library when it was closed. People sat outside, using the free wi-fi. Now, they have other options.
One group to benefit will be students, a school official says. The Bethel School District has implemented a one-to-one program, which has a goal of providing one computer device per child. “We started with our eighth-grade class this year, so every eighth-grade student this year was given laptop,” said Dr. Kevin Dirth, school principal. “The community liked it, the parents liked it and the students liked it. It was wonderful for equity in this town because everybody was able to have a laptop, even those who couldn’t have afforded one otherwise.”
However, with the laptops came homework on the computers as well, which required Internet access, which many of the school’s students did not have at home. “In many cases we were able to get them access, but a lot of them would stay until 7 o’clock at night at school,” said Dr. Dirth, or they would do their homework at the pizzeria.
“Now we finally have some additional access for them, where they can come down here, if the school’s closed, so it will be a big help. It will be just one more way for them to do the stuff they need on their laptops,” he said.
Last month, town leaders celebrated the opening of the public wi-fi network, which had 1,420 unique clients, averaging from 50 to 100 clients per day, in its first month of operation. As helium balloons were taped onto the new town sign advertising the event, townspeople gathered inside around tables draped with white tablecloths and decorated with flowers from a local florist. Participants listened to members of the Bethel Business Association and the town offices discuss what the process had achieved.
“The town officials expect to continue seeing benefits stem from this wi-fi zone,” said Abbie Sherman, the Bethel Assistant Town Manager. “These benefits include giving the town another tool for providing the Bethel community with critical information. In addition, it will provide the community with an alternative to keep in touch with friends and family should we be faced with another disaster,” like the 2011 hurricane, Irene, which cut off parts of the state.
While broadband is expanding across Vermont, many people still do not have it in their homes. Often, the choices for Internet are either satellite or dialup. In addition, even where broadband is accessible, many either choose not to pay for an Internet connection or simply cannot afford to do so.
The zone will also help support local businesses. The Bethel Business Association is footing the bill for the monthly Internet connection. They are expecting to gain many benefits from the access and the landing page that comes with it, which will advertise local businesses in town.
“What we’re talking about is an advanced form of communication,” said Neal Fox, the Bethel Business Association chairman. “And more important, an enhanced form of communication generally translates to an enhanced form of commerce, and that’s what the Bethel Business Association is all about.”
The places where a wi-fi zone can make the biggest difference are towns such as Bethel, which has a close-knit community that already understands how the new Internet access can help build a stronger economy.
Thanks to the Bethel School’s one-to-one program, many families already have access to computers and the knowledge to use them. In addition, through the services of the Vermont Digital Economy Project, Bethel is receiving an Internet Intern, who will be accessible in the Bethel Library for several hours each week to provide one-on-one assistance to patrons to answer their Internet questions. This type of training creates a space for those who are less technologically savvy to be in an inviting and accepting environment and to receive help they need to become more technologically capable.
“This high tech communication is how it’s done,” said Vermont Sen. Dick McCormack, who resides in Bethel. “To not have that capacity is to not be in the game. So this step forward for the community brings us further into this digital age with a higher level of confidence, a higher level of accessibility and a higher level of prosperity.”
The wi-fi system is secure for credit card purchases and has a cloud-controlled software for monitoring and managing the network.
Caitlin Lovegrove is network and outreach coordinator of the Vermont Digital Economy Project