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With 95 percent broadband coverage, state turns focus to cell service

ConnectVT's Karen Marshall. VTD/Josh Larkin
ConnectVT's Karen Marshall. VTD/Josh Larkin

MONTPELIER – The state has now provided broadband access to nearly 95 percent of Vermont and is on track to meet Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ambitious goal of connecting 100 percent of the state by 2013, Karen Marshall, chief of ConnectVT, said Tuesday.

Marshall, appearing before the Senate Institutions Committee to update members on legislation and a $10 million appropriation passed last year to facilitate the connection process, also said rapidly advancing wireless technology is going to help Vermont meet its goal.

Overall, thanks to a huge infusion of federal stimulus funds, the state has spent $150 million and has seen 1,546 miles of key optic fiber added that underlies the broadband expansion. In all, when private investments are included a staggering $423 million is being invested in the state to provide broadband, cell service and smart metering for electric utilities, she said. FairPoint Communication, for example, has spent $61 million to lay 1,100 miles of fiber and provide 24,000 new DSL broadband connections in the state.

“We are exceedingly fortunate to have this amount of capital and network on our landscape,” said Marshall, whose office is located on the Fifth Floor. She is tasked with connecting all of Vermont with broadband, which the governor frequently states is essential to job growth.

Marshall said providing cellular service remains a more difficult task. She said 88 percent of the state now has service but topography remains the key obstacle slowing build-out. Vermont has “three unique characteristics” that have slowed progress, she explained: its hills and valleys; its dispersed, rural population; and dense forests that impede signals.

Springfield-based VTel, another private company, is using new technology that allows signals to travel 25 percent further, Marshall said. VTel has received $2 million in state grants and $116 million in federal grants and loans to provide the optic fiber backbone and broadband to unserved areas in Southern Vermont.

She said the advances in wireless broadband and extensive fiber laid are providing Vermont with a “cutting edge” system for the future.

“I think we are spending our federal dollars very effectively and efficiently,” she said.

At the same time, she said the telecommunications landscape is constantly changing as more and more devices send and receive more and more data. She cited one study that indicates the average household now downloads and sends 28 gigabytes of data a month. By 2015-16, she said that is projected to increase by a factor of seven. Broadband and wireless speed is increasingly going to become the key issue once universal connectivity is reached, she said.

In Vermont, “the platform that’s being built for wireless is world class,” she said, thanks to “fiber backhaul” that has been installed.

“As we go forward past 2013, we have the basic architecture in there,” she said.

Asked about the ADSL2 broadband FairPoint has installed in the state, she said the key factor on speed is how far the data has to travel on copper lines from the terminals providing ADSL, with three miles being the outer limit.

Chris Campbell of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, which funnels state funding to projects and was established in 2007 by Gov. James Douglas to improve statewide broadband and mobile phone service, told the panel that the state is now working on two separate tracks to improve cell coverage.

VTel has been contracted to expand traditional forms of coverage using cell towers that will concentrate on dropped zones in the state and along the interstate with an expected six additional towers, he said.

Vanu Coverage Co., based in Cambridge, Mass., is working with innovative “microcell” technology using utility pole mounted equipment to service hard-to-reach areas, he said. Around 1,000 of the microcell units are planned, he said.

Both projects will provide services to the state’s major cell phone carriers and also mesh well with state efforts to provide broadband to unserved areas, he said.

“I think we have a roadmap to achieve both of our goals,” he said.

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