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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  • Is a short hair cut on women in high level Shumlin administration positions mandatory? Or am I just not seeing enough photos of these folks?

  • If it didn’t hit so close to home, it would be hilarious that Ms. Marshall looks ahead to an expected seven-fold increase in household internet data usage by 2015 while at the same time reaching back to a 2008 definition of broadband to claim reaching “95 percent of Vermont” now.

    The FCC updated the old definition two years ago, increasing by a factor of five the speed that is the minimum for the lowest tier of broadband service (4Mbps upload and 1Mbps download), while Ms. Marshall continues to measure success based on a conveniently nostalgic 768kbps. Even then, she merely parrots numbers from the telecom carriers at whom we’ve thrown hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars with no program in place for “ground truthing” their claims.

    Heck, if Governor Shumlin and Ms. Marshall simply adopt the 1996 definition of “high speed data access” (a 56kbps modem) tomorrow, they will easily make good on the promise of 100% broadband availability a year early.

    I shouldn’t joke—that could be exactly what they plan to do, but my prediction is they will publicly fall short a percentage point or two, so they can tell the tens of thousands of Vermonters left to wither in the last century: “Sorry, you are in the unfortunate one or two percent the topology just wouldn’t let us reach.” Whereas if they remain vapid enough to claim 100% in 2013, everyone will realize the emperor has been strutting about in a birthday suit.

  • Donnel Barnum

    I have been fighting the broadband battle for years and now I find out that we are the 5% that Vermont forgot? I can see the coiled wire up on the pole a 1/2 mile away from our house where Fairpoint stopped. We live in a fairly populated area in Townshend, VT, (not the boonies by any stretch) I have gathered names for Fairpoint of folks who desperately need/want high speed internet that live on our hill, called the state office. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is not be able to function in a 2012 technological world and have affordable reliable broadband coverage. Whether it is schoolwork, financial forms, taxes or running a home business. Don’t get me wrong we would love cell service too but the regular phone works just fine for now please help us get broadband. You will be a hero.


  • Great story! I work from home in one of those rural and densely forested areas mentioned in the article. When I was considering where to move, I was excited to learn that I could have broadband access, and thus could live here in Worcester. Cell service, on the other hand, is nonexistent. I’m hopeful it will be possible at some point in the future!

  • Elizabeth Templeton

    I live on a rural hillside. I have no broadband (although part of my town has it) and must stand in front of the kitchen sink to get a cell connection. The connection is poor enough that incoming calls go straight to voicemail. I need a better cell connection, but I need broadband more. Without it, I can’t work from home. I have missed job opportunities for lack of broadband.

    Gov. Shumlin promised broadband to every Vermonter. I hope he doesn’t see this story and decide that 95% is good enough. I’m afraid that my status as a five-percenter means that I will have to leave my home and the state in order to get job opportunities.

  • David Brown

    I don’t know where Ms. Marshall is getting her 95% figure, but I live in a town that is fairly well served by Comcast and Fairpoint, yet very few of my friends and neighbors consider their broadband internet service sufficient to carry out anything beyond light web browsing and email.

    I have purchased Fairpoint’s “Ultra” DSL service and yet I can’t watch Netflix movies on weekends without frequent buffering pauses. Faipoint tells me this is because their network is “maxed out” in my area. Nice.

    The Comcast service at my office comes to a grinding halt every afternoon when kids come home from school and hop on Facebook.

    Before the Governor and ConnectVT start congratulating themselves for a job well done, I’d like to see a public definition of “broadband VT style.” That way, by the end of 2013, we’ll know whether our government has succeeded or not.

  • David,

    Run Speed Test. If you are not getting 15 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up consistently, then you shouldn’t pay for Ultra.

    If you use WiFi, slowdowns and excessive buffering is often caused by RF interference from other 2.4 Ghz devices like phones, microwaves and Smart Meters.

    Got ethernet?

  • David O’Brien


    I can understand your frustration. Broadband is a necessity today like electricity. Getting it to every nook and cranny of VT is real tough. Then you have to take into account the fact that things like streaming movies require ever increasing speeds of data transfer.

    I spent eight years on this in the Douglas Administration and can say that what Karen Marshall says is true, thin population, meaning few connections per mile, and topography, make this very difficult as a business proposition and technically speaking.

    People here are right that at 95% people are still left out, my guess is that the 95% is based on population and that means pockets of people not served in places like Worcester and Townshend. The good news is that progress has been made, we were the recipients of serious federal stimulus for wired, wireless, smart meters etc. Because of the synergy between the smart meter deployment and VTel’s wireless 4G deployment we will have increasing availability of wireless broadband.

    I hope that you folks soon will have the kind of broadband service you want but do understand that the state has done a lot to step in where the private sector would/could not invest and has made a difference. The good news is broadband is a recognized necessity and priority, that is real progress from a decade ago.

  • Kent Kurchak

    I’m sorry but I think the whole Internet and cell phone build out in VT is a total waste of money and we will not see much economic growth at all from having higher speed connections. All you will see is more frequent Facebook updates, game playing, movie downloads, and more texting and mindless conversations, none of which do squat for the local/state economy. Or improve the quality of your life here. And you will not see an upsurge in high tech businesses along fiber runs to small towns, that is a pipedream.

    Bottom line, if you want faster Internet you shouldn’t live in the country…move closer to a city and you’ll have your pick of providers. All this whining, but in fact fast Internet or cell phone access is not a human right, it is a business, period…and one that shouldn’t be propped up with taxpayer dollars or be a concern of government.

  • David Warshow

    @Kent Kurchak

    Providing broadband isn’t just about attracting businesses, it’s about attracting the employees to work at businesses.
    If Vermont wants to attract high tech businesses those business need to know that they are operating in an area that their employees want to live in.

    I am a Vermont resident but have been attending college earning a degree in computer science in Massachusetts for the last few year. When I graduate I would like to return to Vermont because I love the rural nature of my home town, but if their is still no reliable high quality broadband I will not.

    I know that sounds like a selfish reason but that fact is if we want to retain, or preferably attract, young adults to work in Vermont we need to have broadband availability.