Residents in governor’s hometown wary of universal broadband promises

VTel president Michel Guite testifies before the House Commerce committee in January 2013. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

VTel president Michel Guite testifies before the House Commerce Committee in January 2013. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

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.”

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • How sad.

    I wish these folks from Putney could talk to the citizens of Barnard who now have FTTH (fiber to the home) from ECFiber and pay less just $94 for 5Mbps symmetrical service plus unlimited nationwide calling.

    I know Mr. Guite says FTTH won’t happen because it’s too expensive. But the fact is, it is happening in 23 Verrmont towns by people who got fed up with the telcos and decided (in the finest Vermont tradition) to just do it themelves.

    • Timothy MacLam

      What a surprise! Mr. Guite is no longer “can do” and Gov. Shumlin’s goal of connectivity throughout Vermont by this year seems to have s-l–o–ow-ed down.
      I cannot even get cell coverage on Route 100, or on Route 30 until I reach Brattleboro. Rural states with a small populations have little hope of good Internet connection.
      So much for working from home if you live in the sticks.

  • Brian Otley

    Great article. So Vermont. What was once an exciting, accelerating, progressive project (W.O.W. bringing 4G LTE to a vast swath of rural Vermont) undertaken by a local company (Vtel) seizing opportunities and putting itself out there to deliver a breakthrough capability to Vermont is now a disappointing entitlement to this group of Putney neighbors. Astounding to me how vocally unsupportive some people can be when they lack any understanding of the magnitude and risk of the project being undertaken. If you choose to live in the puckerbrush of VT then you also choose to live with certain benefits and limitations. For the privacy and rural beauty you may have to trade access to state-of-the-art communications infrastructure at the most competitive market rates. The W.O.W. project seeks to solve the coverage issue in VT and the only way to do that with reasonable capital costs is with a wireless technology. And for a rural state like Vermont it is a wonderful step forward that should be applauded and embraced, albeit with the right expectations. Of course, the W.O.W. system won’t be perfect, but it is a heck of a lot better than anything else that has been proposed to deliver near-universal broadband access. And it will be here by the end of the year. Let’s be thankful for what we have and not fixate on the gap between that and what we think we’re entitled to.

    • Lee Stirling

      Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I’ve said something very similar to my kids when they’ve complained about what we’re eating for dinner, something along the lines of: “Be grateful for what you have, there are plenty of people who don’t ever get a dinner as nice as the one you’re complaining about right now.” People can’t always have their cake and eat it too. Boo Hoo!

  • It’s truly sad that federally funded fiber optic cables now run through many of Vermont’s communities that are still settling for dialup, satellite or topography-dependent line-of-sight microwave services. It would be worth investigating how many of those fiber strands are currently being used by VELCO.

    The fiber is there, so what’s the deal?

    “The fiber being built to every substation in the state brings a wealth of high-speed Internet capacity at affordable prices to places where even limited access was priced so high that it was unusable for most purposes. The same fiber backbone that connects the automated equipment in utility substations will carry readings from meters, enable consumers to better see and control their electrical use, connect schools and hospitals to the world, make eHealth and eEducation practical in very corner of the state, and assure that bandwidth is not an obstacle to business success in Vermont.”

  • Elizabeth Templeton

    Wireless is nice when you want mobility. I need a high-speed, reliable connection far more.

    The part of Brookfield in which I live is still on dial-up. I have lost work opportunities thanks to the unwillingness of the state (with support from those who believe I live in the puckerbush) to recognize that broadband is not a luxury. Broadband is a necessity for businesses and for workers, and as long as WIRED broadband is limited in Vermont, job development will be limited.

  • David O’Brien

    Brian Otley has it right. VT is incredibly fortunate to be getting VTel’s wireless 4G network. As Brian said it is cost prohibitive to reach every corner of Vermont with wired Internet, especially fiber. There are a range of pros and cons between city and country living, one con for being in the sticks is being remote from services.

    However if you look at the devices many of us now have, smart phones, tablets, they are all built for a world of wireless mobility. That is where the world is today. VTel’s network being wireless not only brings broadband access to homeowners but also expands the reach of smart phones etc.

    As a state the combined federal support through stimulus for telecom and smart grid should cause us to blush.

    • “As a state the combined federal support through stimulus for telecom and smart grid should cause us to blush.”

      It certainly is embarrassing how much money is being thrown at “infrastructure” with no future that is injuring unsuspecting Vermonters. Meanwhile, fiber optics are being run to all the electrical substations and all of VTel’s existing WIRED broadband customers… for what? That money could have provided 30,000 additional Vermonters who lack real service with reliable, future-proof and SAFE broadband.

      Brian is correct about one thing: W.O.W. is a gargantuan gamble.

      To borrow some of the logic in this discussion, we never should have complained about leaded gasoline, asbestos insulation, or doctors who smoked while seeing their patients.

      This whole wireless “broadband”/smart grid scheme reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Lyle Lanley came to town and convinced Springfield to spend its recently found millions on a monorail.

      What’s the name for something that is harmful and separates you from your money before you realize you’ve been had?

      Oh right… SNAKE OIL.

  • David Dempsey

    Ecfiber was beat out by VTEL for the big federal bucks. So they went out and got private investors interested and a lot of towns got behind the project, and it looks like they have created a viable business with a great product. And it won’t cost taxpayers anything. Shumlins plan is costing taxpayers a bundle, and most people will get an overpriced and outdated poor excuse for internet access. Capitalist 1, socialists 0.

  • Libby Page

    Will be grateful when the false promises end! Like to see my emails? Always, next spring, nope summer, nope fall, oh yes by the winter! If not so frustrating one could laugh! Not everyone choses. Some elderly are stuck, so do not so des respect by saying if you chose to live…blah blah…

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