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VTel, Off-Grid Couple Can’t Connect on Phone Power

  • Paul Schofield hangs up his phone inside the off-the-grid home he shares with his wife Karen in Weathersfield, Vt. Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Though their former phone provider, VTel, told them that the copper wire infrastructure had been removed from the line after the installation of fiber optic service, Schofield's phone still lights up indicating that pwer is flowing through the line. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Paul Schofield hangs up his phone inside the off-the-grid home he shares with his wife Karen in Weathersfield, Vt. Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Though their former phone provider, VTel, told them that the copper wire infrastructure had been removed from the line after the installation of fiber optic service, Schofield's phone still lights up indicating that pwer is flowing through the line.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Paul and Karen Schofield of Weathersfield were dropped as customers by VTel after the communications company updated their network to fiber optic cable and discontinued the traditional phone service most suited to the couple's off-the-grid lifestyle. Tuesday, June 10, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Paul and Karen Schofield of Weathersfield were dropped as customers by VTel after the communications company updated their network to fiber optic cable and discontinued the traditional phone service most suited to the couple's off-the-grid lifestyle. Tuesday, June 10, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Paul and Karen Schofield of Weathersfield us a small home made generator, a pair of car batteries and a couple power inverters to supply the minimal power they need to draw water from their well and light their home inside an insulated "pop up garage." The Schofields electric needs doubled when VTel updated to fiber optic cable from regular phone line and the proveider dropped them as customers after they requested to rturn to regular phone service.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Paul and Karen Schofield of Weathersfield us a small home made generator, a pair of car batteries and a couple power inverters to supply the minimal power they need to draw water from their well and light their home inside an insulated "pop up garage." The Schofields electric needs doubled when VTel updated to fiber optic cable from regular phone line and the proveider dropped them as customers after they requested to rturn to regular phone service.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Paul Schofield hangs up his phone inside the off-the-grid home he shares with his wife Karen in Weathersfield, Vt. Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Though their former phone provider, VTel, told them that the copper wire infrastructure had been removed from the line after the installation of fiber optic service, Schofield's phone still lights up indicating that pwer is flowing through the line. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Paul and Karen Schofield of Weathersfield were dropped as customers by VTel after the communications company updated their network to fiber optic cable and discontinued the traditional phone service most suited to the couple's off-the-grid lifestyle. Tuesday, June 10, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Paul and Karen Schofield of Weathersfield us a small home made generator, a pair of car batteries and a couple power inverters to supply the minimal power they need to draw water from their well and light their home inside an insulated "pop up garage." The Schofields electric needs doubled when VTel updated to fiber optic cable from regular phone line and the proveider dropped them as customers after they requested to rturn to regular phone service.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Weathersfield — For Paul and Karen Schofield, living off the grid is an important choice, central to their desire to minimize their impact on the land and environment.

Surrounded by 13 rural acres, including marsh for beavers and turtles and a pasture for their horse, they have little desire for amenities such as television, iPads or sound systems. For them, nature is more than enough.

“We want to make a very minimal footprint here,” Paul Schofield said recently, sitting in his small home a few miles outside of Ascutney, neatly constructed using the skeleton of a pop-up garage, tarps and insulation.

The Schofields do, however, want a telephone — a reliable landline to connect with the outside world in emergencies and, just as important, for the outside world to connect with them. Incoming communication is especially important these days, as they continue to share in the round-the-clock caretaking of Paul’s aging father, and they don’t have cellphone service coverage at their house.

For 18 years as VTel customers, maintaining a landline with a small homemade generator wasn’t a problem. But now that the regional phone company is replacing its 1800s-era copper phone lines with fiber, capable of delivering not only phone service but high-speed Internet, the electricity needs are more than they can handle.

After installing fiber last July, the company allowed them to return to their copper lines through December, when they moved in with Paul’s father in Springfield, Vt., to take care of him full time. The Schofields, who are in their late 50s and early 60s, then combined their phone service in Karen’s name with Paul’s father’s at his Springfield home. But when they moved back to Weathersfield in May and tried to restart service at that location, VTel said their only choice was fiber — in other words, no phone.

Many days, that amounts to an inconvenience, such as driving into town to find cellphone service or Wi-Fi Internet. But the Schofields wonder what will happen if they ever need to call 911 or if Paul’s brother, who is helping to care for their father, needs to get in touch with them for an emergency.

The problem has stumped both the Schofields, who take issue with the way that VTel has handled the situation, as well as VTel officials, who say that as the world moves away from copper lines, there’s no perfect solution for people in the Schofields’ position.

“The problem is a really, really interesting one,” VTel president Michel Guite said in an interview. “Which is, what do you do when somebody is in a camp … where they’re basically using a lawnmower-like device to try to create power?”

He estimated there were “probably seven or eight people” in a situation similar to the Schofields in VTel’s service area, which includes 14 rural Vermont villages, and many hundreds more in similar situations throughout the state and country.

“If someone is calling you urgently, there’s not an easy way to solve it if you need electricity and there’s not (constant) electricity,” he said.

The Schofields believe that, based on the electrical voltage still being transmitted to their landline, the copper lines remain, but said VTel officials have told them the lines are removed. Guite said he was not sure if the copper lines are still there, but that it’s essentially a moot point.

“That’s not impossible to do for one family for six months, but the bigger problem is how do you deal with remote camps in general?” he asked. He later added in an email: “We … can’t maintain the two networks, for them alone, but we can help them get solar power.”

The major difference between fiber and copper is in the way the phone lines are powered. In the past, phone companies have been responsible for providing the electricity to send power over the copper lines, which is enough to power a basic corded phone plugged into the wall.

With the advent of new features, such as answering machines and cordless phones, both of which are plugged into the wall, consumers began picking up a small portion of the phone-related electricity cost.

For fiber lines, though, consumers must also plug in a modem, even for their basic phone lines. The cost is small: Guite estimated it’s about 8 watts per hour per month — “approximately the same power as a single, most efficient type of light bulb,” he said. A Green Mountain Power spokeswoman said that equated to about $1.20 on a monthly electricity bill for a homestead connected to the utility’s grid.

James Porter, senior policy and telecommunications director at the Vermont Department of Public Service, the regulatory oversight entity and public advocate overseeing telephone companies, said in an email that as an “incumbent local exchange carrier,” VTel has an obligation to provide telephone service to all customers within its service territory.

However, Porter said, it is his “general opinion that a state does not have the jurisdiction to dictate the technology that a company uses to provide telephone service.”

“Along those lines, the days of the copper telephone network are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. … I would not think the phone company has a duty to facilitate a customer who has chosen to live off the grid,” he said.

Local exchange carriers are required to ensure that phone lines have access to 9-1-1 services, even after discontinuation, but “the rule allows for temporary interruption of (continuous emergency access) for technical reasons, or permanent discontinuance of (continuous emergency access) for several reasons, including if another company provides service at the location, or six months after a disconnection request from the customer,” Corey Chase, telecom infrastructure specialist at the department, said in an email.

Few people in VTel’s service area are experiencing the same problems as the Schofields, but a more common problem affecting people living on the grid, according to consumer complaints, is the phones’ battery life. In the old days, basic landline service could still work during a power outage because the electricity would be transmitted over the copper lines. For VTel’s fiber service, the phone requires a backup battery, which provides limited power in the case of a grid outage.

The department has received eight complaints in the past three years related to VTel’s fiber phone service requiring battery back-up, according to Autumn Barnett, the department’s consumer affairs and public information director .

“Phone service in an outage is a concern for the department, as well,” Barnett said in an email.

Guite said the company is working to improve the problem by using more efficient batteries.

For the Schofields, the problem is twofold: Although the power may be negligible for a home on the grid, it is actually twice as much as what the Schofields used on average during the summer, meaning the fiber lines doubled the strain on their homemade generator.

A retired appliance repairman, Paul Schofield built the generator years ago using 5-horsepower universal engine with a car alternator on it. Most of the power is used to pump water from a nearby well.

What’s more, they feel that VTel “strung them along” to the point where it was too late to look for a viable alternative.

“They just kept saying they’d take care of us,” Karen Schofield said at her home. The couple said the company suggested that the new fiber lines would not be problematic for the Schofield’s generator, and if it was, that VTel would work with them to fix the problem, even saying VTel might install solar to generate the power, which Guite disputes.

“What I think that he probably said was, ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’re not looking to abandon people like you,’ ” he said.

Guite said the company is working with the Schofields to develop a list of solar providers that the Schofields and other families in similar situations could hire to build a rig to power their phone. Meanwhile, the company has offered some jury-rigged solutions, such as using the fiber to get Internet and only powering the Internet to access an online voicemail system.

“The tragic part is that we can make it work but it’s such an under-utilization of a powerful resource,” Guite said. “It’s such a strange, limited use of something that has so much that it could do, that in a way we’re trying to … make a state-of-the-art 2015 Google-type network (and) make it work (like) a copper network.”

Paul Schofield estimated upgrading their generation system to efficiently handle the new load would run about $1,500 to $2,000 in upfront costs, or an additional $20 a month in gas and other expenses for their current generator.

He said the couple has the resources to afford those costs, but they don’t think it’s reasonable for VTel to ask them to change their generation system in order to maintain the same level of service — especially, they said, after VTel made assurances that their phone system could be maintained.

“If they had been honest with us from the get-go … we could have been looking for other options,” Paul Schofield said.

“I think it’s kind of like, ‘conform or don’t,’ ” Karen Schofield said. “That’s the way I feel. ‘This is the way people are supposed to live, and if you don’t, too bad.’ ”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.