State regulators say universal broadband is within reach

Chris Campbell. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

Chris Campbell. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

Broadband projects for all but 200 places in Vermont have been set in motion, bringing the state much closer to the governor’s goal of bringing universal broadband to “every last mile” by the end of this year.

The Vermont Telecommunications Authority is 14 roads closer to making sure every address in Vermont has an option for broadband Internet connection, thanks to a new set of grant rounds.

That’s not to say everyone else in the state enjoys a high-speed connection by today’s standards, or that those 200 are the only places left without service. It’s not even to say that all those addresses will actually be connected by Dec. 31.

They’re simply the last known spots missing from anyone else’s plans — whether federally funded initiatives or service provider’s own business strategies — to build broadband infrastructure to reach them. VTA’s mission is to fill that gap, said broadband outreach coordinator Caro Thompson.

“It could take an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to get (broadband) to two houses,” Thompson said. “A provider is never going to get a return on that type of investment.”

To make it worthwhile for companies to extend service to those hard-to-reach areas, VTA subsidizes some of the capital costs of building new broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved locations.

The latest grant cycle awarded $295,750 to FairPoint Communications and $135,804 to Southern Vermont Cable Company — funding that must be matched to some degree by the companies. Roads in Bennington, Brattleboro, Newfane, Putney and Wilmington are on the project maps. (See below for a more complete list.) FairPoint hopes to complete this set of projects by June, while Southern Vermont Cable may finish before the end of the year.

Two more grant applications, from ECFiber and National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, are still under review. A set of grants in 2012 to four service providers subsidized new infrastructure for 545 locations and 52 towns, for about $2.3 million.

The VTA, created by the Legislature in 2007, used capital appropriations to pay for the grants. The agency redistributes funding from a variety of sources to support its mission — building a complete, current and affordable telecom infrastructure in Vermont for both residences and businesses.

During Gov. Peter Shumlin’s 2010 campaign, he pledged to usher in universal broadband by the end of 2013. VTA executive director Chris Campbell is “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll at least have broadband solutions proposed for all remaining addresses by the end of this year.

Need for speed

All projects funded by the grants must meet a minimum combined speed of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) — typically about 4 Mbps for download and roughly 1 Mbps for upload.

But speed is relative.

Three or four years ago, 5 Mpbs was really fast, said Jessamyn West, a Vermont-based library technologist and nationally touring speaker on bridging the digital divide. These days, she finds 5 Mbps “more or less normal” and often sufficient, depending on who’s using the Internet in any one location.

The Federal Communications Commission’s Household Broadband Guide classifies 5 Mbps as somewhere between “basic” (1 to 2 Mbps) and “medium” (6 to 15 Mbps). “Advanced” would be anything higher.

A couple at home using email or surfing the web, and streaming one high-definition video? Basic. A family of four, each with laptops and smartphones turned on, Skyping with grandma and playing online video games? Advanced.

The direction of Internet use is driving demand higher and higher even for single users, West says.

“As more and more is in the cloud — music, movies, and devices syncing with the cloud all the time — that cloud-enabled lifestyle is going to be hampered by that (5 Mbps speed) over time,” she said.

Hampered, that is, if everyone really needs to connect. West compares Internet speed to water service. “In some houses, you can’t have four people taking a shower at the same time,” she said.

Although, West admits, translating that to Internet speed for five college students sharing an off-campus apartment might be a hard sell.

VTA’s Thompson acknowledges that not everyone has equal access to Internet speed in Vermont, and 5 Mbps might not sound like a lot to some. But for people currently living or working in an underserved area, it can make the world of difference.

“What we have to do is get the basic service to everybody first. That has to be the highest priority,” Thompson said. “Because if you’re on dialup, it’s almost impossible to run a business. It’s just not adequate in any way shape or form.”

New service areas

The Fairpoint award will bring DSL service to at least some, if not all, addresses on the following roads: In Bennington, locations on Mount Anthony Road are part of the project. In Brattleboro, addresses on Abbott, Akley, Gateway Farm Lane, and Melchen Roads are included. In Wilmington, Boonesboro Drive, Bossert Road, Haynes Road, Kirby Drive, Old Ark Road and Tessahok Lane will be part of the expansion project.

Southern Vermont Cable will be extending service in Newfane along all or portions of Newfane Hill Road and will reach onto Grout Road. In Putney, new service will be available on East Putney Ferry Road.

Check your service

Internet speed can vary from advertised rates — or from previous recorded rates — depending on the number of devices you may have running at one time, the leaf cover on the trees around your house, or the distance you are from a remote terminal, among other factors.

The website www.BroadbandVT.org offers a free and anonymous online service to check your Internet speed. You’ll need to know your street address, but you don’t necessarily need to know your Internet service provider. It just takes a minute to watch a gauge measure your upload and download speeds, and you’ll also get a graphical comparison of how yours compares to averages in the rest of Vermont and neighboring states.

Report an unserved area

The public can help the state verify its service maps by reporting unserved addresses. Visit www.BroadbandVT.org to register your location if you don’t have access to broadband Internet. Satellite or mobile cell phone access to the Internet does not qualify as broadband service at an address — so if that’s all you have, then go online to register your location.

CORRECTION: This headline and first sentence were corrected to indicate that broadband planning for all but 200 addresses is under way.

BroadbandService(06302012)

Hilary Niles

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