A global pandemic forced many to work from home, highlighting the need for broadband in rural areas like the Northeast Kingdom, which has become a popular relocation destination for both urban and suburbanites.
Broadband is high-speed internet connectivity, which can be delivered wired or wirelessly. In several parts of the Northeast Kingdom, this connectivity is lacking, though expansion efforts are underway largely thanks to federal funding driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. High-speed connectivity fuels remote work and allows high-skilled people to live in rural regions with high-paying, low impact jobs.
“That [it] has been the biggest kind of barrier to being able to stay connected for a lot of these households during the pandemic,” said Evan Carlson, chair of Northeast Kingdom Community Broadband. “It was an issue before, but this has really put a new spotlight on a deficiency in our rural infrastructure.”
As broadband and remote work expands, new residents are moving to the NEK. The price of homes in the Northeast Kingdom have risen appreciably. According to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the median price of a home in Caledonia County in 2019 was $150,000. By 2021, per Realtor.com the median price had risen to $180,000. This represents a price increase of 20 percent in two years.
Sometimes the lack of connectivity can catch new residents off guard.
A big surprise for the Dean family
Jeremy and Kacey Dean left jobs in Washington D.C. to bring their daughters, Madeline and Elizabeth, to the Northeast Kingdom so they all could live a simpler life and be close to family.
Their Waterford home is an 1800s farmhouse at the end of a dirt road overlooking Kirby Mountain. Their jobs are still based in D.C. Jeremy, an engineer, works from home for the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewing plant safety plans. Kacey, a nurse therapist, works remotely for a major insurance company.
But for the Deans, moving to Vermont required a big leap.
“We had to put our faith in my in-laws [who live here locally] and [our realtor],” Kacey said.
The Dean’s bought their house sight unseen. Because of COVID-19, they could only come to Vermont for one day for the home inspection and they paid 8 percent above list price. When they moved in this past June, they discovered a common problem for houses in the Northeast Kingdom: slow internet service.
Madeleine and Elizabeth wanted to complete the academic year at their Virginia school through remote learning. Kacey and Jeremy had remote jobs to do. All they had was satellite-based internet, which is often slow and unreliable.
Luckily, the girls were able to continue their education in Virginia because their school provided a special router and “hotspot,” a remote Internet connection that uses cellular towers.
But what about Jeremy and Kacey? Entrepreneur Elon Musk, of Tesla and Solar City fame, came to the rescue with Starlink, multiple low-orbit satellites that provide fast service. Starlink is currently in beta, the phase of development where bugs are worked out and the concept is proven. If Starlink proves viable, it has the potential to help solve broadband access for rural communities.
In Maryland, Jeremy’s commute to the office was an hour and a half each way and the school Madeline and Elizabeth attended was racked by disagreements over COVID-19. The divisions were deep. Some parents wanted their children to physically be at school, others wanted their children to study remotely. Some didn’t want their children to wear masks even though school policy required them. It was social and political chaos, according to the Deans.
Life in the D.C. area for Jeremy and Kacey was also adversarial. Much of their day-to-day social interactions were with people they likely never saw again. Even selling their home in Maryland was an exercise in avoiding legal action. In Vermont, the seller is required to leave the house “broom clean” for the buyer. In the D.C. area, according to the Deans, the smallest flaw revealed in a home inspection must be remedied to avoid a conflict with a potential buyer. Before the house is sold it has to be professionally cleaned to avoid being taken to court by the buyer.
When the Dean’s put their house on the market, they received four offers the next day. D.C. residents were fleeing to rural Maryland because they could keep their jobs in the city and work remotely.
So now the Deans have the lifestyle they desire, among old friends and family. All the while they enjoy the benefits technology has to offer.
Jo Makes a Life in the Kingdom
Jo Oliver first started to know the Northeast Kingdom back in 1986 when she and her fiancé bicycled from Farmington, Maine, to Morrisville.
Born and raised in New England, she always knew she wanted to come back to Vermont. Six years ago, she left New England to take care of her sick father in California where housing prices are prohibitively expensive. After her dad passed away, she started looking here.
“I first found pictures of the place online,” she said, followed by a narrated video tour of the house. She used Google Earth to get an aerial and a street view of the property. She also had friends in the area to look at houses for her.
Jo works at Servida Medical in Newport. As a nurse, she works with people who are dealing with substance disorders like drugs and alcohol. Her goal is to become a psychiatric nurse so she's taking online classes at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.
“It’s important to me to be part of a community,” Jo said. “I have the best of all possible worlds here. I’m never going to leave.”
Samantha Commutes Between Jersey City and Danville
A controller for William Paterson University of New Jersey, Samantha Green lives in Jersey City but spends a considerable amount of time working remotely from her house just off the Green in Danville.
Samantha’s family moved to a farm in North Danville when she was young. She has deep roots here. She attended both Danville and Peacham schools and graduated from Lyndon State College, now Northern Vermont University. Samatha then worked for McCormick & Company under the tutelage of Danville’s Dwight Lakey.
“Dwight taught me all I know about accounting,” she said.
Overall, Samantha feels that working remotely is a big plus. She can dress casually and hang out with her cat, Fancy though she has to be “camera ready” in order to make professional presentations. Much of her job entails participating in video conferences with her colleagues.
For many years, she made a home exclusively in New Jersey, but Samantha moved in with her mother to care for her during an illness last spring. She passed last summer and Samantha has been splitting her time between Jersey City and Danville ever since.
“Living on the farm in North Danville, one of my mom’s great frustrations was that she had no internet service other than dial up,” Samantha said.
Broadband allows Samantha to enjoy Jersey City’s vibrant downtown scene - the music, restaurants, and movies, as well as the quiet rural life of Danville.