VTel wireless Internet now available

BRATTLEBORO — Many residents in town have waited years for broadband Internet service to reach town.

Apparently, when no one was looking, it did.

Selectboard Vice-Chair Edee Edwards, also chair of the Broadband Committee, reported last week that she had been hearing from residents that a wireless broadband tower owned by VTel in Halifax center is now operational.

Edwards said she asked that this news be added to the agenda of the Aug. 18 Selectboard meeting.

Several residents reported hearing from friends about the availability of VTel's Wireless Open World (WOW) high-speed service.

Halifax residents wishing to sign up for the new service can contact VTel at 802-885-4444. Different equipment may be needed at different locations. One piece of equipment may be discounted for people in underserved towns, the company said.

Surprisingly, Edwards said, no one here seemed to have been notified by VTel.

Communication gap

Numerous residents have gone to VTel's website and requested that they be notified when service became available, Edwards said, and a call to VTel shortly before the Broadband Committee's July 8 meeting netted the response that service would be available “by the end of the summer.”

Earlier, Edwards said the Broadband Committee had heard the tower might be online by the end of June. At the Aug. 4 Selectboard meeting, a resident reported that he'd gotten the service at his home in the middle of town, but the Selectboard was skeptical that the signal was from the tower in Halifax.

Selectboard members have been frustrated with the lack of communication from VTel. While they had heard that additional equipment was inbound, other Halifax householders have been able to get a signal from the Hogback and Whitingham towers.

According to a report aired on Vermont Public Radio, VTel President Michel Guité said that the WOW system already has subscribers and that VTel is waiting until the entire network is completed before advertising it.

VTel has opted for a soft opening for WOW, with the formal announcement made on Aug. 24.

A VTel news release said the service was now available “in the Brattleboro, Putney, Westminster, Halifax, Townshend, Marlboro, and Whitingham areas, including West Brattleboro, Guilford, East Putney, Brookline, Dummerston, Newfane, West Halifax, Jacksonville, and Wilmington.”

It gave no specifics about the exact locations served by WOW in those towns.

In 2010, the company received a federal $116 million Rural Utilities Service grant to build a wireless network in Vermont. Under the terms of the grant, work on the network must wrap up by Sept. 30, 2015.

Five years later, only a few hundred users have signed up for the service. In that time, most of the unserved areas of Vermont - including many towns in Windham County - received broadband service from DSL providers such as FairPoint and cable providers such as Southern Vermont Cable.

Guité told VPR in July that he believes WOW can compete in a digital landscape that has greatly changed in five years.

He said that VTel's wireless network will be faster than DSL speeds of less than 10 megabits per second, but would be slower than the top speeds of 40 to 50 megabits that high-speed cable connection provides.

By way of comparison, VTel is offering its 18,000 wired customers in and around Springfield speeds of up to one gigabit per second, and recently rolled out a 10 gigabit wired Internet service for “power users.”

These speeds are possible in VTel's telephone service area because the company decommissioned its copper wire network in favor of fiber optic lines that transfer data far faster than conventional telephone lines.

VTel is using a network of 135 antenna sites that Guité said would cover 97 percent of Vermont.

Can't wait much longer

Resident Marilyn Allen told the Halifax Selectboard at the Aug. 18 meeting that she had nearly signed a two-year contract with another provider because she was trying to put up a new website for her business and couldn't wait any longer.

As it was, she said, she had to pay a restocking fee for the equipment but didn't have to pay the hundreds of dollars to break a contract.

After ordering a router from VTel, Allen learned from a friend that Halifax residents might be entitled to a substantial discount on the purchase, as the town is underserved. She called VTel again with this request and her account was credited.

Edwards said she was frustrated that service providers don't appear to realize how truly vital the service is in unserved areas.

“We want to get the word out to our neighbors, and we don't want this to happen to other towns,” Edwards said, referring to the notification delay added to the agonizingly slow wait for high-speed internet.

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