It’s the question that’s constantly being asked of state officials and telecommunications companies in Vermont: “When are you going to bring broadband to [insert town name here]?”
The goal set by Gov. James Douglas in 2007 that Vermont would become an “e-state”— with universal access to broadband Internet and cell phone service by the end of 2010 — will not be achieved.
The Vermont Telecommunications Authority, the state agency that was created by Douglas to help bring broadband service throughout the state, may not be able to reach the goal set by the governor in time, but it has rolled out a new program aimed at rural communities that are lacking high-speed Internet.
Called Backroads Broadband, the program seeks to connect 10,000 households and businesses in 99 targeted communities where broadband services are lacking. It offers money to service providers to connect these hard-to-reach areas.
Windham County towns on this list include Brattleboro, Dover, Dummerston, Guilford, Halifax, Jamaica, Londonderry, Marlboro, Newfane, Putney, Stratton, Townshend, Westminster, Whitingham and Wilmington.
As defined by the VTA, the 99 communities on the list have 90 percent or less broadband availability to homes and businesses. The VTA defines broadband as service that provides a download speed of at least 768 kilobits per second and upload speed of at least 200 kilobits per second.
Backroads Broadband would provide download speeds of 4 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 megabits per second. These are the speeds that the Federal Communications Commission recently set as the minimum for what it considers to be high-speed Internet.
According to Al Duey, a project manager for the Vermont Council on Rural Development, who is assisting the VTA on broadband issues, Windham County is neck-and-neck with the Northeast Kingdom in its lack of broadband access.
“If you look at the map, the two places have a lot in common — lots of small communities, lots of hills, lots of rugged terrain,” said Duey. “It’s not the kind of place that companies want to invest in.”
Duey has also heard plenty of horror stories from homeowners and businesses who want broadband but can’t afford what it would cost to bring the service to their location.
“The standard installation rate for cable is $15,000 a mile,” Duey said. “That’s why we need the Backroads Broadband program.”
FairPoint to the rescue?
FairPoint Communications, the dominant landline telephone service provider in Vermont, is interested in getting involved in the Backroads Broadband program.
Beth Fastiggi, FairPoint’s vice president of government relations for Vermont, said her company hopes to submit a proposal to the VTA by the Aug. 13 deadline.
“Our engineering team is currently evaluating the area to see what it would cost to provide high-speed service, and what it would generate in revenues,” she said.
FairPoint is currently one of the largest broadband providers in the state, Fastiggi said. Since officially taking over Verizon’s landline service in 2009, she said, FairPoint has seen the number of broadband customers in its service area rise from 68 percent in April 2009 to an expected 80 percent by the end of this year.
Fastiggi said the idea of providing 100 percent broadband service is a bit of a misnomer.
“It’s really 95 percent of the customers, and the remaining 5 percent on demand,” she said. “If someone’s on top of a mountain and doesn’t want it, we don’t have to bring it to them."
She said the company has explored using a combination of wireless and wired service to deliver broadband to isolated areas.
“But because of Vermont’s topography, we’d still be missing customers,” she said. “What we’re doing instead is using fiber-optic lines to neighborhood networks, then using the ‘last mile’ of copper lines to get the signal to the home.”
More fiber coming
The state’s fiber-optic network could soon expand, thanks to a federal grant for $33.4 million recently awarded to the VTA and Bellows Falls–based Internet service provider SoverNet Communications. It’s part of a more-than-$48-million project called Vermont Fiber Link which seeks to serve 450 community anchor institutions with 773 new miles of fiber.
Supporters say this project would boost the so-called “middle mile” of broadband Internet service and allow schools, state buildings and community centers to hook up to the main trunk. Presumably, private-sector providers would also be allowed to split off these connections and deliver the service out along the dirt roads — the so-called last mile.
Using this setup gives FairPoint the flexibility to ultimately bring fiber-optic service to rural areas, said Fastiggi.
FairPoint is working to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and recently received from state regulators a six-month extension on the end-of-2010 deadline for deploying broadband throughout its service territory.
In the meantime, the Windham County fiber infrastructure continues to expand.
Vermont’s dominant cable TV provider, Comcast, provides high-speed broadband service in Windham County, mainly to more populated areas of towns such as Brattleboro and Bellows Falls.
Kristen L. Roberts, Comcast’s Western New England regional vice president for public relations and community investment, said the company has extended its fiber-optic network by more than 1,200 miles since taking over Adelphia’s service area in Vermont in 2006.
“Last year alone, we completed a 300-mile network expansion in the state, bringing more than 6,000 additional homes and businesses in 25 communities – including four communities that had not previously had access to the company’s advanced broadband services,” Roberts said. “We’re always interested in delivering our advanced services to more customers and exploring opportunities to achieve that goal.”
Roberts would not say if Comcast will submit an application to the Backroads Broadband program.
Southern Vermont Cable (SVC) provides high-speed Internet to customers in Putney, Dummerston, Newfane, Townshend and Jamaica — but only to homes and businesses along its existing cable TV service area on the main roads in those towns.
SVC General Manager Ernie Scialabba said that his company will not be submitting an application for Backroads Broadband and has no immediate plans to expand its broadband service area.
“At least FairPoint has said they’re interested,” said Duey. “The other providers are just looking at it for now.”