The meetings were billed as a “Connectivity Summit” and ended with a formal hearing by the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division of the Vermont Department of Public Service in an effort to gain input for a new 10-year telecommunications plan. Clay Purvis, division director, led the hearing, which he described as a chance for people to tell the DPS what they’d like to see in the new plan before the first draft is released.
It didn’t take long for Purvis to garner feedback on many of the problems faced by rural towns in the area.
Wardsboro selectboard member Peter Sebastian was the first to comment, saying there was a “black hole of connectivity in Wardsboro.”
Much of that black hole, Sebastian said, was due to the topography of Wardsboro, the lack of willingness of landline providers to deliver service to a small population with little chance for a payback, and delivery problems with Vermont Telephone Company’s wireless system.
“People have poor broadband or none at all,” he said. “The VTel towers are supposed to come online, but they’re not going to be able to serve these residences because of the mountainous terrain. And FairPoint won’t go the extra mile. How do we plead for that extra mile? Is there anything in your plan that is going to account for that?”
“Those are areas of high concern for us,” said Purvis. “We have mapped those gaps and they will be part of the plan.”
“I would like to see the plan call for an increase in funding,” said Rep. Laura Sibilia, of Dover. “The state has so many rural communities not covered.”
“We will be covering Vermont town by town,” said Purvis. “I’m also concerned we don’t have enough funding, and concerned we don’t have enough people to help towns meet those needs. We need more tools to reach those communities.”
Sibilia also expressed ongoing concerns about VTel’s wireless system, and the inability of the company to provide information to state regulators about where and who they are delivering service to. “Until there is a change in VTel in their sales and marketing efforts and how the company is run, we need to continue to remove them from the map (of coverage in rural areas).”
Sibilia added the department should continue to support municipalities and volunteer groups in their efforts to bring broadband services to their communities.
Carol Monroe, CEO of ValleyNet Inc. and ECFiber in South Randolph, said she was also concerned with the lack of service in rural communities, and with the 10-year span of the new plan.
“The timeline needs to be shortened up,” said Monroe. “We know there are areas that aren’t served by carriers. If I could see some funding to assist rural areas, we could create some public-private partnerships.”
Duncan Communications owner Cliff Duncan, of Wilmington, added a different perspective to the hearing. He described the challenges faced in his company’s efforts to provide high-speed services to customers.
“The need for speed is not rooted necessarily with businesses, but with the need for personal streaming,” said Duncan. “It requires more and more bandwidth, and now 4K is coming down the road, in terms of bandwidth. I don’t know where the economic fit is for businesses, but their bandwidth needs pale when compared to streaming.”
Duncan said his company was “overbuilding” their current system to meet future demand. He also registered his concerns over how the state levies taxes on cable providers for pole attachment fees, which is substantially different than how telephone companies are taxed.
According to Duncan, traditional cable providers pay a fee every time they attach their cable to a pole. Phone companies, like FairPoint, pay a gross services tax only when a customer signs up for a service.
“As soon as we string a cable on a pole, we pay a tax on that,” said Duncan. “FairPoint doesn’t. No service, no tax.”
Duncan said he would like to see the tax playing field leveled, but admitted “I don’t know how we get there.” He also noted the annual reporting requirements for cable providers were burdensome.
Purvis told Duncan that taxes had been considered in previous plans and likely would be again. He closed the hearing after 35 minutes of testimony. The division hopes to have a draft plan available during the next legislative session that begins in January.