BRATTLEBORO—Edee Edwards says “thank you” for reliable Internet every morning when she starts her workday.
The Halifax Selectboard chair, who also serves as a member of the town’s Broadband, Cell and Economic Development Committee, is still grateful for the high-speed Internet three months after it became available to her location in town.
Edwards — also a librarian and information technology specialist who telecommutes — said the faster Internet service she receives through FairPoint Communications has increased her productivity.
Halifax is one of many Windham County towns checking the “underserved” box for cellular and broadband internet connections.
While large swaths of the country take cellular coverage and high-speed Internet for granted, parts of Windham County still can only access the Internet through the tin-can-and-string method known as dial-up.
And for some Windham County residents, “cell service” means checking messages by dialing their cell phone from their home landline.
Slow to reach the last mile
In 2007, then-Governor Jim Douglas pledged to swiftly bring broadband to the farthest reaches of the state. He formed the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), designed to fund infrastructure projects in underserved areas of Vermont.
Douglas set a target date as the end of 2010.
In his inaugural speech in 2011, Governor Peter Shumlin also pledged to have Vermont connected to the 21st century by the end of 2013.
Despite the lines in the sand from both governors, multiple deadlines have passed, and the farthest reaches of the state still lack service.
But cell signals and broadband Internet availability has continued to expand slowly, and in April, the VTA announced the selection of two vendors to complete projects aimed at bringing cell signals into underserved areas.
A $1.6 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) is also funding a recent push to expand cell service in the state.
“This project will add cellular service to approximately half the roadways of our target corridors across the state, a major step forward for cellular expansion,” said VTA Executive Director Christopher Campbell.
“We achieved a bigger benefit for Vermont by leveraging available state and private funding for cellular expansion with federal funding available for disaster recovery,” he said.
CoverageCo, based in Massachusetts and Virginia, will build and operate the state’s expanding cellular network. The company will install infrastructure along about 450 miles of state and town roadways.
The locations of the roadway were chosen based on tests of signal strengths in 2010 and 2013. The roadway locations are served by CoverageCo’s small (or “micro”) cellular technology, which uses small-cell radio equipment attached to existing structures like utility poles.
In 2011, the firm, a subsidiary of Vanu, another wireless telecommunications company, installed this small-cell technology along some 90 miles of roadways lacking cell service. According to the VTA, that project touched almost 60 towns, including Newfane.
Additional funding will come from the state and CoverageCo’s own private investment for a series of similar small cellular towers, called resiliency communication sites.
The sites, equipped with solar backup batteries, will provide emergency communications capabilities. The effort is part of the state’s overall goal to increase towns’ resiliency during disasters or outages.
CoverageCo is not a retail cellular carrier. According to the VTA, the company leases wireless spectrum owned by Sprint and allows access to the cell signal by customers of other companies through roaming agreements.
Customers of Sprint, T-Mobile, and some leading Canadian companies can access the cell signal from the micro cell sites now. Verizon Wireless customers should have access to the cell signal in three to six months.
Three Windham County towns — Halifax, Townshend, and Whitingham — will also get the resiliency sites from the EDA grant. Northern Reliability, Inc., based in Waitsfield, will design and install the electric power backup for the nine statewide resiliency cell sites.
“The resiliency points that are part of the EDA-funded project are designed so that even if the power goes out and communications links outside the communities go down, these village centers will continue to have communications near these points,” said Campbell.
“We learned how important that is during the flooding disasters in these areas in 2011,” he continued.
The resiliency cell towers will also feed into the micro cell signals along roadways like Route 112 or Route 100.
The roadways and resiliency cell projects should be completed next year.
Connecting when the phone is out
Halifax, Townshend, and Whitingham received damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 which took out electricity and phone service. Some residents spent days cut off from the outside world.
The town garage located on Branch Road off Route 112 will house the new resiliency cell tower, Edwards said, noting that the VTA and a contractor evaluated sites in town earlier this year.
Along with providing backup cell service in an emergency, the tower will contribute to cell service for travelers on Route 112.
Route 112 is one of the primary paved roads connecting the southern portion of the Deerfield Valley to points in Massachusetts: Greenfield, Interstate 91, and Route 2. The road is heavily traveled during ski season.
When Irene’s storms washed away scads of Route 9, valley residents used Route 112 — although dicey in parts — to cut south to Greenfield, Mass. before driving north to Brattleboro on Interstate 91 or heading to Bennington via Route 2 and Route 7.
Irene chewed through miles of Halifax’s roadways, and many residents were left without power or phone for several days, recalls Edwards.
Along with preparing for Mother Nature’s storms, wider access to reliable cell and high-speed internet play into Halifax’s broader economic development plans.
Broadband and cell service are “nagging in the background of our economic situation,” said Edwards.
Copper landlines, not fiber-optic cable, generally predominate in Halifax, said Edwards.
The town has received multiple grants over the years to expand cell and broadband Internet in the town, she said, but the small, rural area keeps hitting a “chicken-and-egg” conundrum, she said.
Edwards has spoken to a number of second-home owners who would like to move to the area but can’t, because they can’t take their jobs with them without better Internet speeds.
Halifax School, which services students in kindergarten through grade eight, has a high-speed Internet connection. The town office and school share a building, yet the town offices have not been able to install Internet faster then DSL. Extending the school’s fiber cable has proved too dear.
The slower Internet speed has caused issues for town employees and owners of local businesses who can’t take advantage of trainings via streamed webinars, Edwards said.
A number of small artisan businesses in town can’t post images to their websites and perform other tasks that businesses with high-speed Internet take for granted, she added.
Satellite serves many homes, she said, but she described it as very expensive and not always reliable.
When people don’t have Internet, they don’t realize how it could help their businesses, their children’s education, or the town as a whole, said Edwards, and as a result, they don’t demand connectivity.
“We lack the imagination of what we could” do economically with better cell service and Internet, she said.
Edwards said the town broadband, cell, and economic development committee is looking for more volunteers.
The people serving on the board have done so for many years, she said. Fresh energy and perspective would be invigorating.
Feeling the pinch, but moving forward
Far to the north, also on the farthest reaches of Windham County, Townshend felt the pinch of limited cell signals and hand-held radio compatibility during Irene.
According to Town Bookkeeper Craig Hunt, the limited communication ability did not amount to a serious issue but caused glitches during the storm.
Two years ago, the VTA met with the town about a site for the resiliency cellular tower and backup power sources.
Hunt anticipates the infrastructure will be installed in the clock tower at Town Hall in early summer.
Townshend will also benefit from the CoverageCo micro-cell antennae installed along Route 30.
Still, Hunt said with a laugh, he lives 1.5 miles outside of town and can’t get a cell signal.
AT&T is in the preliminary stages of installing a cell tower on private property in Townshend, said Hunt, who received the company’s information packet April 22.
According to Hunt, AT&T completed the engineering work and has entered a 45-day comment period as part of the state’s permitting process.
AT&T was awarded permission to install towers in the Townshend area in 2008, said Hunt.
Every year since then, the government has promised better cell and Internet services, and in the intervening six years, people have stopped crossing their fingers, he said.
In Dover, resiliency, economic development, and reliable telecommunications have remained intertwined.
Originally slated to receive one of the EDA resiliency communication towers because it lacked reliable cell service, Dover was removed from the grant’s site roster.
The town was dropped because the town’s concerted efforts to expand cell and Internet service have paid off. The town now has too much connectivity to meet the EDA’s dead-zone threshold.
Readsboro, nearby in Bennington County, will receive a tower instead.
According to Dover Economic Development Specialist Ken Black, the town is now “fairly well covered.”
“I get pretty decent cell service,” he said.
Establishing broadband and cell service has been goal number one for the town since 2009, said Black.
That year, Dover and neighboring Wilmington learned that their business communities suffered from the lack of connectivity, according to an economic development study conducted by John Mullin.
Mullin, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor of regional planning, warned that the area needs communication services that grow and adapt for it to attract new businesses and support existing ones.
Along with its year-round residents, Dover serves a large population of second-home owners and vacationers, said Black — a population that is used to better cell and Internet service.
Black said that communications technology and how people’s expectations are constantly changing. He pointed to the recent Winter Olympics in Russia as an example.
Every event from the games this year was streamed live on the Internet, when in recent years people would have waited for selected events to air on television, said Black.
Winter Olympians Kelly Clark and Devin Logan have called Dover home, fueling the demand for complete live coverage.
The town has used tax monies from its 1-percent local option sales tax to increase cellular and Internet infrastructure.
Visitors on Route 100 can access a free wireless zone for about a mile north of the town offices, said Black. The town designed the zone to cover most of the local businesses and nearby Valley Trail, a pedestrian and cyclist pathway.
Black did not have an exact number of homes and businesses with reliable access to cellular but said that having a cell signal in the town has become more of a norm when just a few years ago it was the rarity.
AT&T has erected a tower on Dover Hill Road near the elementary school.
According to Black, the tower, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, is not fully operational yet but will likely cover the East Dover–to–Newfane corridor.
AT&T has also upgraded its cell tower at the Mount Snow ski area, said Black.
Black added that the town continually aims to do better with its economic development, cell, and Internet connections.
Technology keeps changing and the uses keep growing, he said, noting that residents and governments have to be prepared to adapt.
In the meantime, that change is happening at a slow pace. Back at her home in Halifax, Edee Edwards might have high-speed Internet now when only recently it was unavailable. But she still doesn’t own a smart phone, “because it’s useless to me.”
And there’s the paradox.
Edwards reminds neighbors that if rural broadband and cell were easy, everyone would have it by now.