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Resident holds key cabinet position

Marshall to oversee state Internet expansion

Feb. 3, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

As Williston resident Karen Marshall sees it, Vermont’s opportunity for universal broadband and cellular phone service has never been better. With millions of dollars available in federal stimulus money to create a statewide, high-speed Internet and phone service, Marshall said Vermont’s complete immersion into the digital age is only a few years away.

Marshall, a former telecommunications executive with Comcast and Clear Channel Communications, will head up a new state effort to bring Internet and mobile phone coverage to every corner of the state. Picked by Gov. Peter Shumlin last week, Marshall is the third Williston resident chosen by the new governor for a high-profile government job, for which she will receive a $115,000 salary.

“This work is so important,” Marshall told the Observer on Monday. “This is a mission I think I’m uniquely qualified for.”

Of the many initiatives Shumlin announced before and after his inauguration in January, he touted the broadband and cell plan as one of the most important. Shumlin created the position with Marshall in mind and calls the statewide plan Connect VT, he said in a press release issued on Friday.

“It is vital that the telecommunications highway is in place for Vermonters by the end of 2013,” Shumlin said.

And 2013 is a deadline Marshall intends to meet. That year, $410 million in federal funding geared toward telecommunications expires if left unused.

Experience in telecom

Marshall, a 16-year Williston resident, is a familiar face within Vermont’s business community. She worked in the advertising field for Comcast, acting as vice president for the company’s northern New England division. She also managed 15 radio stations in the Champlain Valley as vice president of Clear Channel’s Vermont section. Most recently, she served as chief operations officer for SecurShred, a local company providing confidential document shredding and storing.

Aside from corporate experience, Marshall was involved in several service-oriented organizations in the state, including stints as a board member for Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and as chairwoman of the Vermont Economic Progress Council.

Marshall said her years working in telecommunications and community service efforts got her noticed by Shumlin. Almost immediately after Shumlin won the gubernatorial election in November, he picked Marshall and a number of other state officials to study the best way to bring universal Internet and mobile phone service to the state.

“There really needed to be someone who could serve as a master project manager,” Marshall said. “The governor said, ‘Why not you?’”

The plan

Marshall has identified a number of goals she intends to complete as the 2013 funding deadline looms. Number one among them is what she calls a marriage between the digital technology that provides people with electricity, known as the smart grid, and broadband fiberoptics technology, also known as the telecommunications grid.

By bringing together companies that handle the grids and working with them toward a common cause, the rest of the goals should fall into place, Marshall said. Still, she admitted the plan might be easier said than done.

Reaching the goals will require getting private companies, state agencies and electric utilities, among other groups, on the same page, she said. And some of these groups don’t communicate with each other in the best possible ways, she added.

“It’s like a three-dimensional puzzle,” Marshall explained. “It’s about filling in those missing puzzle pieces so the whole thing doesn’t collapse.”

Streamlining the various groups should also allow the state and private telecommunications companies to maximize the $410 million available. But a number of challenges lay ahead, she said. Many utility organizations are highly regulated, requiring a lengthy permit process before any new work can start.

In response, Marshall hopes to ease the state’s permitting rules and perhaps change regulatory issues surrounding the construction of cell phone towers and broadband cables.

Marshall hit the ground running on Monday in her new job and said she’s excited to finally see Vermont offer broadband and cell coverage to every corner of the state. She looks forward to the day when Vermonters in the most rural locations will be able to turn on their computers and access the Internet at high speeds.

“We have to celebrate every connection,” she said.

WILLISTON IN THE ADMINISTRATION

Karen Marshall is not the only Williston resident chosen by Gov. Peter Shumlin for a high-profile post in his administration. Former Williston state legislator Mary Peterson now holds the position of tax commissioner and Kate Duffy was promoted to commissioner of human resources.

The Observer will profile each person in coming weeks.