Monday March 18, 2013

WARDSBORO -- VTel Wireless executives say they’re willing to look at alternative sites to bring high-speed, wireless Internet to Wardsboro.

But after a two-hour meeting here Thursday night, company leaders said they’d still like to place antennas inside the steeple of a historic church on Main Street -- a project VTel has spent years developing.

And VTel President J. Michel Guité said that, no matter what course the company takes, it must happen relatively quickly.

"We’re pretty flexible. The problem we’ve got is, we’ve got 200 sites to build (statewide)," Guité said. "We’re going to follow where the church leads us. If you said, ‘We’d prefer not to,’ we’d look at other options."

VTel has received federal funding to bring broadband access to unserved and underserved areas in Vermont. It’s a big priority for Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Guité said the initiative is "right on target, right on budget."

But that doesn’t mean it’s been without complication. VTel recently relocated a tower project in Newfane after hearing concerns about historic and aesthetic impacts in Newfane Village.

In the Wardsboro project, VTel has received state approval to place six panel antennas inside the steeple of Wardsboro Methodist Church. But the project ground to a halt in December when church trustees voted to stop working with the company.

"We did decide not to do it," trustee Nancy Perkins recalled. "We knew there were some people who were deeply concerned."

At the same time, Perkins said, "we have to take into account that there seems to be a lot of people in town who do want broadband."

So discussions have continued. A meeting Thursday at Wardsboro’s town hall -- just across the street from the church -- attracted both supporters and opponents of the steeple project.

The most vocal opponent was Paul Rush, who owns a home next door to the church. Rush said he’s not opposed to broadband service.

"Everybody wants it. I want it," Rush said. "I just don’t want it across from my house particularly."

Rush said he purchased the property with the understanding that a church would be his neighbor. "Suddenly," he said, "I turn around and the next day it’s a cell-phone tower."

Though VTel and church trustees have said the antennas won’t be visible and won’t change the appearance of the structure, Rush said he was more concerned about what is not visible: Electromagnetic radiation created by VTel’s antennas.

"I’m worried about it because I’m 45 feet away," he said. "I’m getting it 24 hours, seven days a week."

"You can’t just say, ‘It’s safe, it’s fine,’" Rush said.

But Will Dodge, an attorney representing VTel, said such radiation is tightly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The standards, he said, have been reviewed by other federal agencies as well.

The FCC sets a "maximum permissible exposure level." Dodge said projects such as Wardsboro’s generate exposure at just a fraction of that level even for a person standing directly under the antennas.

"These types of facilities ... they have very low power," Dodge said.

"We don’t want an unsafe facility any more than anyone else does," he said, adding that exposure decreases "exponentially" as a person moves even short distances away from antennas.

Guité acknowledged that studies still are being conducted to determine the effect of widespread, long-term exposure to radiation from wireless facilities and devices.

But he concurred with Dodge in saying that "being 40 or 50 feet away changes everything."

Several meeting attendees expressed concern and regret that Thursday’s VTel presentation didn’t happen in 2011 or 2012. Rush said he found out about the proposed project only because he saw a notice issued to a local history organization he is involved with.

"I’m an abutter, and we never even received a letter or a notice," Rush said.

Dodge said the state streamlined permitting processes for such facilities in order to speed the spread of broadband and cellular service. Rather than navigating myriad local regulations, he said, companies could apply directly to the Vermont Public Service Board.

The idea, Dodge said, is that increasing wireless access in rural areas is "not just a convenience, but it’s an economic imperative."

Rush responded this way: "What you just described is not democracy. Who really had a say in it?"

Others in the crowd of about 20 spoke in favor of the project. With some saying they still relied on dial-up connections, one resident said he would "be happy to just get on the Internet within a reasonable time."

VTel representatives said the steeple antenna would reach about 280 homes. It will bring higher-speed, wireless Internet access as well as high-definition telephone features for those who purchase a VTel device.

"For most people, it will be an improvement," Guité said of VTel’s Internet speeds.

He added that, in terms of VTel’s data-based calling features, "there’s no doubt the world is going to high-definition voice."

Resident Kevin Burke said he already has high-speed Internet access. But if the project goes through, and if VTel’s speeds are higher and "the price is right," he said he may switch.

"I can see the greater good for the town," Burke said, while making clear that he was not lobbying for or against the project.

Resident Joe Miller said he approved of the project as VTel had proposed it.

"My personal opinion is, it should be the church," Miller said. "It just hurts me to see the way they’re being jumped on."

In the coming days, it will fall to church trustees to gauge public opinion and their own opinions before voting yet again on the project.

Trustee Alan Bills sat through Thursday’s meeting and said he may have "made a big mistake" when signing a contract with VTel.

"I should have found out more about it," Bills said. "We weren’t trying to put anything over on anybody."

Perkins said she has not yet come to a conclusion, though she believes there are relatively few opponents of the project.

"I think the majority of people are in favor of it," she said. "And they don’t care if its in the church."

At Rush’s urging, VTel representatives said they also would investigate other Wardsboro sites if the steeple project does not work out. But residents must get a list of suggested properties to the company by Friday, March 22.

Guité said VTel is aiming to finish its wireless projects by year’s end. And his daughter, Diane Guité, who serves as VTel’s vice president of business development, said each potential site must be examined by experts.

"We have a network-engineering team that has to say whether a site works," she said. "There’s a very specific science."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.