Only Connect: Vermont Nears Total High-Speed Goal, but Some Question Progress
Irv Thomae, EC Fiber board member takes a photograph while EC Fiber workers install a drop cable at Thomae's home in Norwich, Vt. on Dec. 7, 2013. Thomae dose not have EC Fiber connected to his house yet, but is likely to have it in about a month. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Thetford, Vt. resident Heather Carlos stands in front of her home on Dec. 8, 2013. Carlos does not have high speed internet at her home.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Montpelier — On Nov. 20, three years after he was elected to office, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin raised his right hand and praised the progress made toward a promise on which he almost delivered.
That promise was to bring high-speed Internet to every Vermonter by 2013. With a little over a month to go, Shumlin said, Vermont was “99 percent” of the way there. And there was a “solution” coming for nearly everyone else.
“You can count on this hand, and I can’t tell you exactly how many fingers, but on this one hand, the number of folks, connections, locations in Vermont to which we have no solutions,” Shumlin said before a room packed with state officials, telecom company representatives and reporters at the Pavilion Office Building in Montpelier. “That’s pretty extraordinary.”
Today, fewer than 3,000 addresses remain without access to high-speed Internet, according to state officials. In three years, roughly 30,000 homes that didn’t have connections before are now served.
Thetford resident Heather Carlos doubted the state’s claim.
“I didn’t believe the ‘99 percent,’ ” Carlos said.
Her skepticism comes from years of being told that broadband Internet service is coming soon, and yet she and her neighbors are still waiting. When she types her Colby Road North address into the “Find Broadband” section of the state’s website, Broadbandvt.org, a message appears: “Great News — faster Internet is coming to this area!”
Carlos doesn’t have high-speed Internet at her home today, though technically there is a “solution” on the way. The company that is bringing that service is Springfield, Vt.-based Vermont Telephone Co., the website says. But Carlos hasn’t heard anything from VTel and has no idea when to expect that service to arrive.
VTel President Michel Guite did not address specific questions posed by the Valley News last week about when Thetford residents like Carlos and people in other unserved areas of the state can expect to have high-speed Internet. However, he said the company continues to make progress on its plan to cover Vermont — a plan for which it received $116 million in federal stimulus money in 2010. The bulk of that money is going toward a fiber-to-the-home network that will serve roughly 16,500 homes and businesses in the Springfield area. The rest is being spent on a wireless broadband project that will cover much of the rest of the state and reach into remote areas that have never before had anything faster than dial-up.
So far, more than 3,000 customers are connected to VTel’s fiber network and VTel is rolling out the wireless service around the state. Much of the wireless, however, is still in the testing phase, including in the communities near Mount Ascutney.
“There is a lot of network tune-up,” Guite said in a brief telephone interview last week.
Still, the project will not be done this year.
At the meeting last month in Montpelier, Guite and his daughter, Diane Guite, who is the company’s vice president of business development, said VTel will offer wireless broadband to Fairlee, Hardwick and Sheldon by the end of this year and will bring 15 more towns online in early 2014. The fiber-to-the-home network is 65 percent built, they said, with the remainder to be constructed by the end of 2014.
The company, which is contributing $30 million of its own money, says it has spent 65 percent of the project funds and is on track to meet the federal deadline of September 2015.
Projects by other telecom providers are extending into next year. One fiber-to-the-home network being built in Bradford and Topsham that was scheduled to be finished this month is about 50 percent complete, said Dan Ceresoli, general manager at Topsham Communications. He expects it to be done by early 2014.
“It’s not like we’re dragging our feet,” Ceresoli said last week. “It’s weather-related and waiting for other companies to do their work.”
State officials say the remaining dark spots in the state should not overshadow the progress that has been made. Vermont has come closer than most states to achieving universal coverage.
“If you look at comparable rural states, just look across the border in New Hampshire, nobody else except for the highly urbanized states have gotten that far within the time frame we’re talking about,” said Chris Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.
And some Vermonters, frustrated by years of being promised high-speed Internet soon, have taken matters into their own hands.
Residents of Moore Road in Sharon have invested more than $100,000 of their own money in a fiber-optic project being built by ECFiber, a nonprofit group that includes 23 towns. Homeowners have even been digging trenches themselves for the underground connections.
Moore Road eventually will be served by FairPoint Communications and VTel, but residents have lost patience.
“I’m still mystified,” said Tory Rhodin, of Moore Road, who has yet to receive broadband service. “What happened to all that tax money that was going to bring us broadband?”
Beyond that, some wonder whether the technology that is being deployed around the state will be fast enough to handle the increasing demands being put on the network. Fiber, which transmits data through thin glass tubes, is much faster than cable, DSL and wireless. Still, those other technologies will serve many homes in Vermont.
Most people use the Internet these days to do far more than check e-mail and browse the Web. They watch movies online and use multiple devices at once.
The term “broadband” generally refers to Internet access at speeds faster than a dial-up connection, but has become a term so broad that it is nearly meaningless.
In Vermont, broadband means download speeds of 768 kilobits per second, or kbps, and 200 kbps upload. To watch a YouTube video requires a minimum speed of 500 kbps, but two computers in the same household could not watch videos at the same time without problems.
For Carlos, of Thetford, who works with geographic data for Norris Cotton Cancer Center, basic broadband is not fast enough.
“The definition of high speed … is far from what most people would define as high speed,” she said in an e-mail, sent from work. “Even if I had access to this definition of high-speed Internet, it is unlikely that I could work from home as you likely can’t transfer files of any substantial size or remote access data at work.”
Carlos is expecting a baby in January and would like to be able to work out of her house. She does not expect to have this option. Other Vermonters who are starting businesses or who have children in school are also eager to have faster Internet service.
State officials say tremendous progress has been made and the work done to date is just laying the groundwork for constant improvement. Indeed, most Vermonters will have Internet service that is much faster than the minimum requirements, providers say. But there are still thousands who wonder when that “progress” will catch up to them.
Rhodin, in Sharon, is among those who are tired of waiting.
“It’s really only because there were some neighbors willing to put some money in that we’re getting (broadband),” said Rhodin, who expects to get service from ECFiber sometime next year. “That’s not how it was supposed to work.”
Questioning the Progress
Rhodin has been eager to have faster Internet service for a long time. She has a teenage daughter who expects to graduate from Sharon Academy in June. In recent years, her family has gotten by with a limited-data plan from Verizon that uses mobile technology to access the Web.
Limited access to the Internet has not only affected her daughter’s ability to do school work, but it has strained relations with guests.
Rhodin has hosted international students over the past five years. One was from Gaza City. Two others were from Indonesia and China. All, she said, had faster Internet in their native countries and became frustrated trying to get online at her home.
“I would say, ‘Wow, what a first-world problem to have,’ ” she said. “Except we had third-world students who had better access.”
When she goes to Broadbandvt.org, she sees that VTel and FairPoint are coming to her area, with the map tinted yellow where she lives to indicate “projects in progress.” The only project she’s counting on is the one from ECFiber, which she can see being built now along her road.
Broadband is not a regulated industry in Vermont, and data about which homes are covered comes primarily from Internet service providers. The Public Service Department assumes that telecom companies are telling the truth, said Corey Chase, a telecom infrastructure specialist with the department.
Still, the department takes an attitude of trust but verify. It uses a variety of sources, including a telephone survey and reports from consumers, to map coverage.
“We generally consider that the information they send us is accurate and correct,” Chase said. “But we do have various processes in place to consider whether that information might be inaccurate.”
Vermont officials acknowledge that the maps on Broadbandvt.org are not 100 percent accurate. Gaps in service often are discovered only after residents report an “unserved address” through the website.
Those reports come daily, Chase said, and if there is a conflict between what the consumer says and the information from providers, the department defers to the homeowner. Sometimes, they discover that a homeowner actually has service but was unaware of it.
It is difficult to drill down to specifics on which individual homes are covered, in part, because of the way providers submit information, according to the state. Some give a list of addresses, others list telephone exchanges, highlight street segments on a map or provide “wireless propagation studies.”
The maps may not be perfect, but officials say they are pretty accurate with a small margin of error. As for everyone who does not have service, Campbell said, he is confident that the projects in the pipeline will have Vermont covered.
“Not all of the people have broadband service, but they will have service,” he said. “Our objective here is to get people served in the most expeditious way possible.”
Vermont’s U.S. congressional delegation has been keeping tabs on broadband expansion, too. Sen. Bernie Sanders has met several times with the telecom companies and officials with the Rural Utilities Service, which awarded the stimulus money to VTel, said David Weinstein, a senior adviser to Sanders.
Vermont’s broadband expansion has been slower than many expected, Weinstein said, but Sanders intended to hold providers accountable to make sure the federally funded projects got done.
“This is taxpayer money and anyone that accepts taxpayer money has 300 million bosses,” Weinstein said at the Nov. 20 meeting. “We take that very, very seriously.”
Campbell said the state had to be “pragmatic” and not put unreasonable expectations on providers.
Topsham’s project, for example, will miss its Dec. 31 deadline. But that isn’t all Topsham’s fault. Poor weather can hamper work to string fiber along existing poles.
Also, the small telecommunications provider sometimes runs into issues with other providers. For example, the fiber has to be hung a certain distance beneath electrical wires on the utility poles, said Ceresoli, Topsham’s general manager. But if another company, such as FairPoint, has existing cables there, then Topsham has to wait for FairPoint to lower them before Topsham can hang fiber.
And if the work crosses private property, then Topsham has to approach the landowner for permission.
“Things look easy on paper, but when you go out and do it, there are a lot of difficulties,” Ceresoli said.
Some Vermonters are so desperate for service that they’ve been doing some of the work themselves.
Sue Sellew, of Sharon, led efforts to bring fiber to Moore Road. Sellew works at an engineering firm with “super-fast Internet speed,” but she will be retiring soon and will have to rely on Internet service at her home.
When she heard that ECFiber was working on a project less than a mile away in Pomfret, she started contacting neighbors to see if they were interested in bringing fiber to their road.
Sellew and her neighbors raised more than $100,000 to invest in ECFiber bonds to pay for wiring Moore Road. Many have even donated their physical labor.
“Several of us have rented (equipment) and dug the trenches ourselves, others have hired to have it done,” Sellew said in an e-mail. “Anything to make the process happen faster!”
Is the Technology Adequate?
Even when every last Vermont h ome has some kind of broadband access, the work won’t be finished.
“We’re thrilled that we’ve, for all intents and purposes, gotten to where we wanted to go,” said Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Administration, during Shumlin’s broadband update in November.
“But recognize importantly, most importantly, this is not a marathon. It’s not 26.2 miles. This race doesn’t end.”
There has been a question about whether some of the technology being deployed around Vermont will be outdated by the time the projects are finished.
Norwich resident Irv Thomae is among those who believe the plan to build out broadband in Vermont is short-sighted.
“The cable technology can be upgraded to some degree,” said Thomae, a retired software developer who is ECFiber’s board chairman.
“I don’t know any technology other than fiber that is infinitely upgradable to certain speeds.
“Fiber is the better investment.”
No one disputes that fiber is a more advanced technology than cable or DSL. But it is not realistic to expect telecommunications providers, which are investing their own money in these projects along with the state and federal grants, to rip down existing infrastructure that can be used to bring broadband to unserved areas of Vermont, Campbell said.
“We have to be pragmatic about it,” he said.
The debate about what kind of telecommunications technology should be deployed was happening long before Shumlin took office.
In the mid-1990s, the state was talking about bringing dial-up service to everybody in the state, Campbell said, adding that there “has always been a next thing.”
VTel’s wireless broadband has been a big improvement for Weathersfield resident Bob Flint. Flint is one of 15 “beta testers” in the towns surrounding Mount Ascutney for VTel’s wireless service.
Flint appreciates the importance of high-speed Internet to the state. He works as the executive director of the Springfield Economic Development Corp. and has been trying to take advantage of VTel’s fiber project to boost the local economy.
Every fiber customer he has spoken with is “tickled pink” with their service.
Broadband is a personal concern, too. Flint has two teenagers and there are times when his household has four or five Internet-enabled devices going at once.
VTel’s wireless broadband in Weathersfield isn’t perfect, Flint said, but it works 95 percent of the time and is a lot faster than the service he used to have. Until he got hooked up with wireless broadband in September, Flint used a DSL connection from another provider. It qualified as broadband, but just barely. He had trouble streaming movies on his smart television and struggled to download music files during certain high-traffic times of day.
“Now, I don’t worry about it,” Flint said.
Residents not served by VTel’s wireless network should still have faster service than before. Most of FairPoint’s customers in Vermont will have speeds that exceed the basic requirements for broadband, said Beth Fastiggi, of FairPoint, during Shumlin’s broadband update.
And just because parts of Vermont will have cable or DSL, that doesn’t mean that the network will be out of date in five years, Campbell said. Fiber is at the network’s core, serving as “middle-mile” infrastructure, even if it is not what connects to everyone’s home. FairPoint has built out some fiber and then uses its existing cable network to reach that “last mile” to individual customers.
“That enables us to do it a lot more cost effectively,” Fastiggi said. “Getting to all of these areas is very expensive, which is why we’ve relied for the last-mile projects on public support because to get there is way more (expense) than we’d ever make back and make a profit on.”
Another investment in fiber is a Vermont Telecommunications Authority project known as the Orange County Fiber Connector, which is being used by ECFiber to extend service in Norwich, Randolph and Thetford, as well as Moore Road in Sharon.
Carlos said she would love to have fiber at home in Thetford, but the chances it will serve her area are slim. VTel’s wireless network is supposed to cover her address and the state’s focus has been to get everyone covered first, and then encourage providers to upgrade speeds.
She and her neighbors could always become ECFiber investors, like the Moore Road residents, but it would cost thousands of dollars that she does not have.
She feels “hung out to dry.”
“It is infuriating when I get a push from the state to file my taxes online (which they have done for several years), yet they don’t give me the infrastructure to do so,” Carlos said in an e-mail.
Carlos has contacted the state with her concerns. In late October, she received an e-mail from the Department of Public Service, thanking her for sharing her thoughts and offering sympathy, but little else.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to facilitate your getting high-speed Internet access and I understand it can be very frustrating to not have your need for broadband service met, especially with the news that the service is being expanded to new communities every day,” said Melissa Metivier, of the Department of Public Service, in the e-mail.
“I encourage you to check with your telephone and cable providers on a periodic basis, for information about service expansion plans.”
The advice to check with her cable provider was of no help, Carlos said.
She can’t get cable.
Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-272-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.