The story of these particular project investments starts many years ago in the town of Stamford. Isolated from most of Vermont and sitting right on the border of Massachusetts, they formed the Southern Vermont Broadband Cooperative, a paid wireless internet provider run by volunteers in the town. These rural telecommunications pioneers refused to take no for an answer and came up with an entrepreneurial solution to connect their residents to modern life and the internet. Fast-forward to 2015, and the town of Readsboro loudly letting me know that their economy was being severely hurt by their lack of internet and cell service. The selectboard formed a volunteer committee and together we set out to find out what was knowable about providers and coverage from the Department of Public Service.
Locals will remember that what we found out was both shocking and unacceptable. Vermont coverage maps showed virtually all of Readsboro had acceptable internet speeds. This supposed coverage had made most of Readsboro ineligible for a small competitive state broadband grant program and also unlikely to see expanded service by FairPoint through a federally-funded buildout program: the Connect America Fund (CAF) – also known as the universal service high-cost program. CAF is the Federal Communications Commission’s program to expand access to voice and broadband services for areas where they are unavailable.
And why was Readsboro (and much of the rest of rural Vermont) ineligible for these programs? Because VTel’s federally-funded Wireless Open World program had indicated in their 2009 project they would cover virtually all of the unserved addresses in the town (and virtually all of rural Vermont). And so most of the town’s addresses were shown as “covered” by the VTel project. Taxpayers will be pleased to know that addresses shown as “covered” were not eligible for most additional taxpayer-funded build-out investments.
Many will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, VTel was awarded an $81.7 million grant and a $35.2 million loan to bring fiber to homes in the Springfield area and to build 119 towers and antennas to set up a system of wireless broadband which would cover 33,000 unserved Vermonters in our state’s most rural areas. Readers should understand that the landmass size required to cover those 33,000 is most of the state. The 2014 Vermont Telecommunications Plan described the wireless project as “central to the state’s broadband efforts.” While the fiber to the home project is completed and an asset to the Springfield region, VTel has publicly acknowledged that seven years later, the wireless project only has about 3,000 subscribers. And still, virtually no one in Readsboro can get the service. And the towers that federal taxpayers funded VTel to construct in Dover and in West Wardsboro are still waiting for transmission equipment to be placed, by VTel, atop one of our highly cooperative local ski resorts.
VTel’s wireless project has been removed from the state’s broadband coverage maps, thus opening up funding for other providers to serve what were previously considered VTel areas. Places like Readsboro, where FairPoint and the Southern Vermont Broadband Cooperative have recently both been funded by the Department of Public Service to build out internet access in the town – wired and wireless.
Recent articles in our local Deerfield Valley News have featured some loud protests of these non-VTel investments by local VTel customers. They have insisted that wireless internet is the future in internet. This may or may not be the case. What is true is that after almost a decade of waiting for wireless internet paid for by our fellow US taxpayers, it is unacceptable to ask the 30,000 mostly Vermonters still unserved by VTel to continue to wait for the company to install equipment in a timely fashion, staff a sales effort capable of providing 30,000 customers service and technical expertise, and have staff respond professionally to customers’ queries rather then the quirky, sarcastic, sing-song replies that individual customers often get from the company’s founder.
If VTel is working for you, that is fantastic. These rare customers are among the lucky 10% who are actually successfully receiving the federally funded W.O.W. project. For the remaining 90%, we need to keep working to support the creation and funding of local initiatives and planning efforts that our local volunteers are stepping up and creating.