We can’t leave 30K Vermonters behind

April 17, 2016 For Immediate Release:

Last week the Vermont House passed a bill which will raise additional funding to expand internet to approximately 30,000 unserved and underserved Vermonters.  H.870 will increase the universal service fee on phone bills by half a percent, raising roughly $1.6 million per year.  The language was approved in the House by a 96-31 vote.

VTel arra
Map of original VTel wireless project area

A resolution, also approved by the Vermont House of Representatives last week, underscores the urgent need for that preliminary funding. House Resolution 19 asks the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to conduct a financial and performance audit of a combination 116 million dollar federal grant and loan that the Vermont Telephone Company (VTel) received in 2010.  The resolution was drafted in response to finding whole parts of communities completely unserved and was co-sponsored by a large tri-partisan contingent of House Members. Senators from Southern Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom  introduced a version of the resolution in the Senate, S.R.13.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, VTel was awarded an $81.7 million grant and a $35.2 million loan to fiber to the home 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. 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 President Michel Guite has recently acknowledged that five and a half years later, the wireless project only has 1,000 subscribers.  VTel insists that the construction of the wireless system has been mostly completed.  While it may be mostly true that most of the planned towers have been erected, it’s also clear the wireless system was to have covered far more than the 1,000 subscribers Mr. Guite now reports.  Surely the goal of the funding was coverage for Vermonters, not just construction of towers.

After many years of hopeful waiting there is now a growing understanding that tens of thousands of Vermonters, Vermonters previously thought to have a plan in place for internet access under VTel’s wireless project, remain unserved (see 4/1 coverage unserved list by town here).  Their grand lists have not been growing, home values have not been rising, and they did not have a “plan b”.

The Department of Public Service is now working with these rural communities to develop “plan b” for universal coverage in their towns. VTel’s wireless project has been removed from the states broadband maps, thus opening up funding for other providers to serve what were previously considered VTel areas. It is imperative that we provide those communities with resources for this work.  In addition to the increase in the Vermont universal service fee, H.870 contains changes to act 248(a) to improve co-location and tower siting,  a requirement that providers, like VTel, who utilize public dollars for build out, also provide mapping data to the Department of Public Service and a financial penalty for failure to provide that mapping data by withholding high cost funds.

Access to the internet is an essential part of modern life and required in order for Vermonter’s to participate in our state, national and global economy, stay connected with family, and to become and stay educated.  It is the most important infrastructure investment we can make to encourage low impact economic growth and recruit workforce.

State Representative Laura Sibilia Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

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