NEWFANE—When Windham Regional Commission executive director Chris Campany walked into the NewBrook Firehouse on Jan. 22 for a public forum on broadband and cell phone access in the region, he saw something rare and unusual for Newfane.
He saw Vermont Telecommunications Authority executive director Christopher Campbell talking on a cell phone.
“When I saw him, I thought he was just messing with me,” said Campany.
But it wasn’t a prank. In the middle of one of the notorious dead zones for cell service in Windham County, Campbell had cell service and he said he had a “five bar” quality signal.
The secret was a small, unobtrusive antenna, attached to a telephone pole on Route 30 about 200 yards south of the firehouse. These low-power base stations, located about a mile apart, are transmitting cell signals.
Campbell said the VTA teamed up last year with CoverageCo, a wholesale service provider, to install the cellphone “micro sites” on corridors around the state where little or no cell service now exists.
CoverageCo in turn rents out the use of these antennas, which function with both CDMA- and GSM-enabled phones, to retail providers. T-Mobile and Sprint are using them now, while the two dominant providers, AT & T and Verizon, are not.
This was just one of the many signs of progress that the VTA was touting to an audience of nearly 30 people, all of whom were from towns with either no broadband or cellphone service, or service that was inadequate or unreliable.
The VTA’s two major projects are nearly completed, Campbell said.
Vermont FiberConnect, an 800-mile high speed fiber optic network connecting 347 “community anchor institutions” – schools, libraries, municipal buildings, and hospitals — around the state stands at 99 percent complete.
VTA worked with Sovernet on this $48 million projection, which was primarily funded with federal economic stimulus money. The VTA kicked in $2.1 million and Sovernet put in $12.1 million.
Campbell said this network now forms the backbone of Vermont’s broadband network, and has paid immediate dividends to the state in the form of faster and more improved service.
The other big project is improving cell phone service along unserved or under-served corridors, such as Route 30 between Brattleboro and Winhall and Route 9 between Brattleboro and Wilmington.
Overall, Campbell said, cell service around the state has improved, but there are still holes to be filled. The problem is that the cellular service providers are more interested in upgrading their existing networks than expanding into inadequately covered areas.
“We’re really swimming upstream in terms of where the (cell) carriers’ investment priorities have been,” said Campbell. “We can’t change the population density in our area. We can’t change the terrain. The only thing we can do is lower costs.”
The same could be said for broadband internet. While FairPoint Communications announced last week that it had completed a $6.6 million high speed internet expansion project that targeted 20 towns, including Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney, there are still a couple hundred customers in those towns that did not, and will not, get faster service.
For the remaining Dummerston customers without broadband — defined by the VTA as a minimum speed of four megabits per second for downloads and one megabit per second for uploads — Southern Vermont Cable will fill the gap. The expected completion date is August at the latest.
The Putney addresses without service will have to wait until VTel completes its 4G LTE wireless broadband network it calls Wireless Open World, or WOW. It has a federal deadline of the end of 2015 to complete the project.
Caro Thompson, the VTA’s broadband outreach coordinator, said “it doesn’t matter where you are, because we are looking at every address” that doesn’t have high-speed service, and trying to find a solution.
Another broadband expansion success story was hailed by Sharon Combes-Farr, director of the Vermont Digital Economy Project.
She said the state is working on creating WiFi “hot spots” in village centers. Wilmington and Newfane have them, and soon Halifax will also.
These hot spots, which are owned by the towns, will tap into the high speed fiber optic lines that Sovernet has strung across the state. The range is about 600-800 yards.
Despite the success stories, the people waiting for broadband are getting impatient.
Andrea McAuslan of Marlboro questioned the 99 percent access figure quoted by Gov. Peter Shumlin, who promised universal broadband access by the end of 2013. While she finally got a DSL line last year at her house, McAuslan said she knows “plenty of people in Marlboro who do not have it.”
Blake Prescott of Newfane said that the part of town where he lives tried to form a neighborhood watch in response to the growing number of burgleries, but lousy cell service means neighbors can’t make calls or send texts to alert others of suspicious activity in real time.
Referring to the continued uneven access in Windham County, Prescott said bringing better broadband and cell service was like “bringing a train in where we just have horses.”