Some residents in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s hometown of Putney are skeptical about whether the state will keep its promise to ensure all Vermonters have access to broadband by the end of 2013, and they are doubtful about the quality of the service.
John Field, who lives on Putney’s West Hill Road near the boundary with Dummerston, estimates that 20 or so homes in his neighborhood lack broadband access. Field says there is too much uncertainty about the $116 million, federally funded Wireless Open World (WoW) project Vermont Telephone Co. is responsible for rolling out by Dec. 31. The project aims to reach Vermont’s remotest offline areas via 200 wireless sites.
“Even if they do finish by 2013, we are very skeptical about the product,” Field said. “It’s not broadband; it’s a wireless cell service data plan.”
“The promise of real broadband is very different than the reality,” Field continued. “The reality is that different pockets of the state are going to get true broadband — DSL, cable, fiber optic — and others will get wireless Internet. Wireless Internet is not hardwired: It’s not true Internet. It’s less reliable, has download limits, is extremely expensive, and the weather affects it.”
Field says VTel’s proposed connection speed of 5 megabits to 10 megabits per second is too slow; rates will increase to $200 per month; and potential download limits of 10 to 20 gigabytes per month will prevent him from streaming audio and video freely, or even Skyping.
VTel’s president Michel Guité says he is also a big fan of fiber, or hardwired Internet access, but that’s a “dream that won’t happen” in Vermont, because it isn’t economically feasible in many towns.
The latest federal stimulus filings for VTel indicate that the company’s WoW project was less than half complete, as of Dec. 31. VTel has 10 months to complete the project.
Guité told VTDigger the company will meet the 2013 year end deadline. The company Ericsson, a partner in the project can install thousands of wireless sites in as little as three months, he said. About 80 percent of construction is under way for 729 miles of fiber still unfinished out of 1,200 miles total.
“People say they want wireless because they want the mobility it offers,” Guité added. “It isn’t clear that 80 to 90 percent of people want the fiber solution. And it costs so much to build that, if it doesn’t penetrate almost every home, it’s not a viable business proposition.”
Guité estimates hardwired Internet costs about $4,000 per home, a serious capital investment for companies that have no guarantee residents will subscribe. The need for high bandwidth access, for downloading movies and audio, is limited to only “a handful of people” that he says “wish we were EC Fiber,” a competing fiber Internet firm.
“Notwithstanding a couple of people that wish we were EC Fiber, I think that generally most people will be very, very pleased, because wireless is really an important revolution that’s being adopted everywhere on Earth,” Guité said.
Guité wouldn’t offer a concrete estimate or likely price range for consumers, contending that such a revelation would threaten VTel’s competitiveness. His national competitors, including AT&T and Verizon, he said, don’t disclose price plans before they launch a network.
“I think it’d be hard for a new player like us to succeed and to lead forcefully against AT&T and Verizon if our prices are exactly the same as theirs,” Guité said. “Presumably in a competitive marketplace our prices would be lower.”
Field now uses HughesNet, a satellite Internet service for about $80 per month that he says is only “marginally better than dial-up.” Field and his wife, Jane, both work for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, as a psychotherapist/social worker and pediatrician, respectively. They said their limited Internet service makes it hard to communicate with patients.
Michael Wilner, Field’s neighbor and an educational consultant, says VTel’s WoW project probably wouldn’t deliver fast and affordable Internet for typical personal and professional use. He’s also skeptical that VTel will meet its 2013 year-end deadline.
Wilner says that if VTel’s network is competitive with local rates from already existing providers like AT&T, VTel could charge up to $200 per month, a rate which Wilner claims AT&T now charges some locals for wireless with a 20 GB monthly download limit.
From Wilner’s conversations with administration officials, he said, the prospect of “real” hardwired Internet, the kind he wants, is five to 10 years away, a timeframe he described as “an obvious absurdity.”
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, says the criticisms are exaggerated. Mrowicki doesn’t know whether lack of broadband access is now widespread in Putney, but said that he believes that VTel’s project will finish on time, and that most Putney residents will be satisfied with it.
“I think that most people are going to be happy with that [WoW program],” said Mrowicki. Although he sympathizes with those who have poor Internet connections, he doesn’t hold out hope for hardwired Internet in Putney. “If it was affordable, it would have been done already by the companies that are doing this,” Mrowicki said. “The fact is that the free market has failed here. The governor doesn’t have broadband at his house, too, and he’s aware of that. So it’s a problem for him, too.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin declined to comment directly. His new telecommunications chief, Kiersten Bourgeois, said: “We are very aware of the need for improved broadband in parts of Putney and other parts of Windham County. In fact, both FairPoint and VTel have projects planned or under way in the area.”
Bourgeois said she’d already met with Mrowicki, and that she’d stay in regular contact with residents, companies and others, to push for improved broadband infrastructure.
These assurances may not convince Janet Goldstein, however, another Putney resident who lives on Windmill Hill Road, about four or five miles away from Field and Wilner. Goldstein collected 45 signatures from neighbors last year for a petition urging officials to tackle inadequate Internet coverage, which she forwarded on to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“I work at home, and so without the Internet, I’m kinda screwed,” said Goldstein, who directs a nonprofit counseling center. “We pay $100 a month, and every time it rains or snows, or the wind blows, or the sun shines and there’s a sunspot, we have no Internet connection, and I still pay for it.”