Tim Nulty is trying to raise $100 million to bring rural Vermonters into the Internet age.

A year ago, Mr. Nulty, a silver-bearded economist with 35 years of telecommunications experience, was tapped by a group of small towns here along the Green Mountains to build a fiber-optic network that would provide high-speed Web access to their citizens.

Barreling through the credit crisis and then the recession, Mr. Nulty has struck out with state authorities, big investment banks and wealthy individual investors. Now he's turning to the federal government for help.

The economic stimulus package, which sets aside $7.2 billion for broadband initiatives, could provide a crucial lifeline to municipalities struggling to bring broadband access to millions of Americans who don't have it -- a key initiative of President Barack Obama.

The saga of the central Vermont project shows how the financial turmoil has exacerbated the already daunting challenge of reaching the most sparsely populated areas of the country.

From accountants to small-busin ess owners to housewives, the residents of the 22 towns that hired Mr. Nulty are effectively living in the dial-up era.

"People are truly afraid their communities are going to die if they aren't on the communications medium that drives the country culturally and economically," he says. "It's one of the most intensely felt political issues in Vermont after health care."

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