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Stimulus Stories: Telecom veteran Evslin readies Vermont for Round 2 -- and Google

The state is putting its broadband hopes in many baskets -- smart grid fiber, middle- and last-mile projects and a 'one-in-a-gig' chance at Google gold

Along with his wife Mary, Tom Evslin started wholesale long distance carrier ITXC back in 1997 (which they eventually sold off). Evslin subsequently launched AT&T WorldNet, one of the first ISPs, among other ventures. Now mostly retired and living in Vermont, Evslin has been working in various capacities (currently as state chief technology officer), to bring broadband to the small, northeastern state.

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That effort -- not to mention his deep industry experience -- has put him at the center of numerous efforts to help seed and speed that broadband deployment, including applying for funding via the federal broadband stimulus program, for similar federal funding in the area of smart grids, and even making an application to Google's closely-watched Fiber for Communities project.

For the Evslins, their broadband journey in Vermont began about three years ago, when the state formed the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) and authorized it to issue revenue bonds to help fuel broadband deployment. The economic downturn, however, killed the market for those bonds. Next, the VTA and Evslin helped the state’s utility providers apply for smart grid funding, ultimately winning $69 million that is being used to extend a state-wide, utility-owned fiber network with smart energy capabilities. “That doesn’t ultimately solve the [state’s] last mile problem,” Evslin said, “but it does make it easier to solve.”

When it came to federal broadband stimulus funding, a few small projects that could impact Vermont applied for Round 1 stimulus funding, but the VTA and service providers in the state are making a bigger push with a planned Round 2 application. Evslin and the VTA are helping to coordinate that effort with various providers in the state; the project will consist of middle mile and last mile projects to help Vermont reach its goal of 100% broadband coverage, Evslin said. The deadlines for that application are coming up soon, and exactly which local providers will be part of the application is still be decided.

As that effort moves forward, the state last week decided to also place a big bet on Google’s fiber project, a move that Evslin called a “one in a gig” longshot. In a vote last week, the VTA decided to put in a bid to try to convince Google to wire not just a few cities but the entire state of Vermont for broadband – “we think we’d be a fantastic testbed for them, Evslin said. If they win Google funding, the project would be quick and administratively simple,” Evslin promised, because state law supports the deployment of a statewide broadband network in the same way as if it was deployed in a single town.

“In one project, Google would get to build a network across a variety of terrain and make a big impact in an area that is already very fertile ground for broadband,” Evslin said, making his pitch for his state. Although it’s not clear exactly how Google would propose to build such a network, Evslin estimated the price tag to wire Vermont would fall somewhere between $250 million and $1 billion.

While some lucky communities will benefit from Google's largess, the bigger picture impact will be to prove that a “structural separation” business model for local broadband networks can be successful and attract private capital. “I’d like to see that succeed,” Evslin said, adding that the U.S. “needs that to be competitive.”

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Evslin photo courtesy of Union Square Ventures

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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