Covid-19 has sparked something of a broadband renaissance in Vermont.
When the pandemic hit, and people were forced to work and learn from home, internet providers and officials scrambled to address longstanding gaps in broadband access statewide.
And the announcements are still coming out: AT&T said Tuesday that it had expanded adding 62 new cell sites in 52 towns across the state to offer more coverage on its network.
VTDigger recently talked to two Vermont-based internet providers — ECFiber, in the east-central part of the state, and VTel, in its southern corridor — about updates in the broadband infrastructure expansions they’ve made so far as the coronavirus crisis continues.
“We are still building out,” said Chris Recchia, managing director of ValleyNet, which runs the ECFiber broadband network. “Even though we’ve finished building in 13 of our 23 towns, we’re going to build nine of the 10 left this year.”
He said the provider is connecting regular customers at a rate of about 50 per week.
“We’ve moved pretty much everything up to 2020, and we’re trying to accelerate those people who didn’t really have any internet through the summer so they’re ready to go in the fall,” he said.
Recchia said that in areas with infrastructure already in place, the provider so far has equipped 32 households with free installation and services. Those are households with school kids on free- or reduced-lunch plans or who qualify for food stamps.
That promotion had originally lasted until the end of April, but it was then pushed back to the end of June and now remains until the end of August.
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But the provider had also gotten requests for free service in places without the needed buildout, Recchia said. Twenty of those households are in places where plans are still in motion for infrastructure upgrades, he said, primarily in Randolph.
A remaining nine households qualify for the free services but require underground installation, he said, which is costly to the consumer.
So the provider is offering a new promotion: For anyone who provides a deposit before Aug. 31, ECFiber will pay up to $1,000 for underground hookups.
For people who don’t qualify for free services, Recchia said, the provider wants to finish build-outs in their towns by the end of the year.
VTel — short for Vermont Telephone Co. — has 14 WiFi hotspots up and running around the state that it installed because of Covid-19, said Michel Guite, the company’s president.
He said the company has turned on a wireless tower in Whitingham — one that had already been in the works — and is working to get one on in Greensboro, too.
VTel has spent about $300,000 on replacement batteries and redundancy equipment — in case of a power failure, for example — for the most used of its 150 wireless towers around the state, Guite said, a move to ensure the company can meet the increasing demand for internet.
He said the company is also buying more radio spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission so that it has the capacity to offer more service if the pandemic continues.
The broadband upgrades around the beg a question: Will it last?
Both Guite and Recchia think so.
“It’s a crazy worry,” Guite said of concerns that buildout and service expansions will end if Covid-19 fades. “Of course it’s going to continue.”
As Recchia put it: “We’re not going to just take it all down and roll it up and walk away. It’s an investment that’s going to last many decades into the future, so we should continue to use it.”
Recchia said ECFiber hopes to gain enough customers to support a reduced rate for people currently receiving free services once their offer ends.
That’s one thing the provider is looking to government grants for, he said. ECFiber received an offer from a foundation, which he declined to name, to invest $300,000 to help sponsor reduced pricing, he said.
That would make up a third of the cost, he said. If ECFiber could get another third from the state or federal government, and the remainder from local businesses, it could offer a reduced rate “probably indefinitely,” he said.
But as SevenDays reported last week, lawmakers have scaled down the state’s new broadband plan from $100 million to $43 million, with only about $13 million proposed for connecting Vermonters to high-speed internet.
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