HARDWICK — Sprint has figured out a way to compete with telecommunications giants AT&T and Verizon, and Vermont is one of the first testing grounds for new technology sparked by the rivalry.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday afternoon in Hardwick, VTel announced the launch of a new service that taps Sprint’s broadband spectrum and purchasing power to deliver high-speed Internet service through the air — as opposed to conventional distribution through copper or fiber optic cables.
Wireless isn’t as fast as fiber, but wireless speeds are better than other technologies, VTel representatives said. Traditional DSL service generally doesn’t reach beyond 15 Mbps for downloads.
New wireless broadband technology can reach 50 Mbps download speeds — though it typically averages closer to 30 Mbps due to network congestion, proximity to towers and other factors. Uploading is generally pegged at one-third or one-quarter of the download speeds.
VTel, a local carrier of phone, television and Internet services, owns both fiber optic and 4G-LTE wireless networks. Through its new voice-over LTE phone service, VTel is continuing its push into the wireless data market.
For VTel, Tuesday’s ceremony was a benchmark toward fulfilling the requirements of a $116 million Rural Utilities Service grant and loan the company received in 2010.
The deadline for was December 2013. Guité said VTel was not alone among rural service providers nationwide who couldn’t deliver their services in time. The deadline was later extended to June 2015, according to Diane Guite, the VTel vice president of business development.
The delay was acknowledged by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Gov. Peter Shumlin, who wielded ribbon-cutting scissors. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., was also on hand, as were an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and RUS assistant administrator Keith Adams.
“Progress has been a bit slower than we would like,” Leahy said. “But it’s paying dividends.”
Leahy and others underscored the crucial role high-speed Internet plays in business development, education, telemedicine and civic engagement.
Guité said the company’s buildout was slowed by many factors, including the complicated processes for locating towers and coordinating pole attachments with other telecom providers.
“No one really understood the magnitude of how complicated it would be,” Guité said.
She said she understands many Vermonters have been disappointed by delayed service improvements, but she thinks it’s been a “blessing in disguise” because the technology has come so far in the interim.
The grant was for only 1.5 Mbps speeds — a fraction of what VTel can deliver now. Guité said the technology is on track to become even faster before the end of the year.
Twelve towers are now online, serving all or most of 24 towns around Vermont. In the next year, 157 more towers will go up, Guité said — all told 40 of them financed by private dollars. The goal is to create a “wireless canopy” capable of beaming service over about 97 percent of rooftops in Vermont.
Some areas will receive broadband for the first time, while the service will introduce or add to competition in other places that have already been connected.
For Sprint, the partnership with a rural service provider tests its strategy for competing with telecom market leaders that command about twice the customer base. The coverage adds to Sprint’s market share, and carriers benefit from the economy of scale.
Sprint announced this spring that it would leverage partnerships with many small regional and rural carriers to grow its footprint. VTel is one of about a dozen rural providers nationwide Sprint has signed partnerships with.
VTel President Michel Guité said before partnering with Sprint, the company could not have accessed the technology that makes today’s wireless speeds possible.
In addition to the wireless buildout, the majority of VTel’s federal grant and loan was for residential fiber.
The Guités announced Tuesday that VTel has laid all of its planned fiber lines at the street level, and now is tackling the hard part: connecting houses.
They recently completed a 4,000th connection, but they have 12,000 more to go in the next year to meet grant requirements.