End of an Internet Era: ValleyNet Email Addresses Discontinued

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/28/2018 11:50:30 PM

West Lebanon — Upper Valley residents are lamenting the coming end of the valley.net email service, one of the few remnants of the region’s early days online.

Telecommunications firm Firstlight Fiber announced this month that it will stop hosting valley.net email addresses as part of a move to focus on its existing fiber services. The email service — which costs customers $5 a month — will no longer work beginning Aug. 31, the company said in an email to customers.

“After that date, any email sent to a valley.net email address will get an undeliverable bounce-back notification,” the email said. “We encourage you to find a new email provider at your first opportunity.”

While many people switched to popular, free email services — such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail — years ago, some are reluctant to make the change. Use of a valley.net address, they say, is the true mark of a longtime Upper Valley resident.

“The email address is a pat of our personality now. We’re attached to it,” said Lebanon resident Jon Chaffee, whose address dates back to 1998. “We’ll be sorry to lose it, if we can’t find some way to transfer it.”

Part of what makes the email so special is its connection to many people’s first time online, Chaffee said. The service dates back about 24 years, when people were just beginning to send emails and access websites.

“It was a time when the Upper Valley essentially had no service,” said David Goudy, former executive director of the Montshire Museum and one valley.net’s earliest backers.

Many of the large service providers at the time skipped over the Upper Valley, leaving people to connect via expensive dial-up connections through Manchester or Burlington, Goudy said.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth College was also searching for ways to get people off its BlitzMail system, said John Hawkins, who was then a computer administrator at the school.

“It seemed like everybody in the Upper Valley was using Dartmouth email,” he said in an interview last week. “We got the idea that maybe we could start a nonprofit internet service provider that came out of the college, but wasn’t really a part of it.”

The provost approved the idea of a nonprofit service provider and Hawkins resigned his position to found what would become ValleyNet, originally called the Upper Valley Community Network.

Over the course of three months, Hawkins said, he hustled to get libraries, social clubs and anyone who would listen on board. He also scrounged equipment from the college and recruited colleagues to help.

Ultimately, the college severed its connection to the venture after Hawkins couldn’t assure it would pay for itself. That’s when the Montshire stepped in and provided office space. ValleyNet was formally born in October 1994.

“For about three of four months, I was ValleyNet,” Hawkins said, adding that the museum effectively saved the service provider.

“It was the early days of people getting local numbers,” Goudy recalled about the dial-up days. “For a lot of people, ValleyNet just kind of opened the doors up (to internet).”

Although Dartmouth was no longer funding the project, it donated servers and maintained them at the college, Goudy said. It also licensed the Blitzmail software to the new provider.

Then came along the valley.net email accounts, as well as workshops and lectures titled “Using Email” and “What Is the Internet?”

Gradually, Goudy said, technology changed, opening the door to higher speeds and more customers.

“It was quite a nice community model,” he said. “To me, it’s just one of many examples of the entrepreneurial spirit in the Upper Valley.”

ValleyNet had about 6,000 customers when it decided to shift away from being an internet service provider. At the time, officials felt the job could be done better and cheaper by other companies, said Stan Williams, who has served on the nonprofit’s board of directors since 1999.

The dial up accounts were sold to Vermont company Sovernet in 2006. Sovernet was then purchased by private equity firm Bass’ Oak Hill Capital Partners, who merged the accounts into FirstLight in 2016.

The valley.net email service has continued through that time, leading up to this month’s announcement.

“There are some services we have historically that we feel are better suited to be provided by other companies,” the company wrote in its email to customers.

While he understands people’s connection to the valley.net address, Hawkins personally switched to using Gmail about a year ago. The valley.net email became less reliable over time, he said.

“I feel like it’s evolution,” Hawkins said. “I’m OK. Things go away.”

Goudy feels similarly, saying the loss of valley.net email doesn’t bother him.

“It served its purpose, and I think it did so brilliantly over time,” Goudy said, adding he’s proud to see what’s become of ValleyNet after it dropped out as a service provider.

The nonprofit has spent its last few years working with a coalition of Upper Valley towns to develop ECFiber, a community-owned utility that’s pledging to bring universal internet connectivity to residents.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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