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

2 thoughts on “We can’t leave 30K Vermonters behind

  1. ray eilers

    Seems a shame all this money was supposedly spent on the rural area and they have nothing to show for it Who was watching the hen house the fox and now a new tax to make up for someones botched operation .Where does it stop

  2. Michel Guite

    Hi Laura, thank you this opportunity to reply to you.

    You introduced yourself to VTel by an attack two or three weeks ago, but your attack resulted from your admirable desire to do your own broadband research, which is really excellent. I wish others followed your example.

    Regrettably, however, you misread the two research documents you relied on.

    Worry not! Errors in reading documents happen to everyone. Nonetheless, in your case, and because Vermont is a small state with few federal and state elected politicians, and regulators, and our Governor, working closely, your unintentional and well-intended error lit a costly bonfire. This bonfire, sadly, was celebrated by these same Vermont legislators, and regulators, and VT Digger, who do less research than you. But let’s talk about it.

    You started by reading a confidential April, 2016, DPS consultant report listing some 36,000 Vermont homes without adequate DSL, written by data analysts seeking Connect America federal funds to improve Vermont DSL. You incorrectly thought you were seeing a list of all Vermont homes without Internet. It was an easy mistake to make.

    Then you read VTel’s 2010 RUS wireless application summary, promising to serve some 33,000 unserved Vermont rural homes.

    But then you connected the dots in error, concluding somewhat passionately that the 36,000 Vermont homes needing telephone DSL upgrades, and the 33,000 VTel 2010 homes with no Internet, were the same homes, in the same census blocks VTel had promised to serve. They were not. Not even close.

    But then you went a step beyond careful research, leaping into a sort of ecstatic, no-parachute, “Watch Momma everyone!” insane jump, accusing VTel of never building its $35 million wireless network, and asserting that VTel’s 1,000 early innovator customers proved the network was a mirage, and suggesting VTel has perhaps done a Jay Peak on everyone!

    The Internet coverage data you correctly and reasonably and boldly set out to find, Laura, is very readily available. We at VTel would be pleased to help you, or anyone, collect and analyze it. A good place to begin – as you initially sought to do – is the DPS Connect America Fund wireline telco DSL report. Then we can show you how to overlay FCC wireless census block data, provided to the DPS by VTel Wireless and by US Cellular. Then we can help you overlay the same public FCC data from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Then we can show you cable TV. The result will give you, your constituents, the DPS, the legislature, and anyone who wants to see it, a rich map of all wired and wireless, DSL and cable TV, little Wi-Fi providers and wireless giants, fixed and mobile, Internet availability for all of Vermont.

    VTel Wireless serves about 95% of all the census blocks we promised to serve, but the “right answer” has to extend beyond VTel Wireless, to a statewide effort to integrate all the public data available.

    Michel Guite

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