Newfane VTA meeting: Cell service lags broadband in some areas
NEWFANE -- Progress and patience.
Those two words might sum up Vermont Telecommunications Authority's assessment of the expansion of broadband and cellular service in the Windham County region.
While there is ample evidence of both technologies pushing farther into rural areas -- including construction of fiber-optic lines and new towers -- authority administrators acknowledged that there is much work left to do.
That may be especially true on the cellular-service front, as VTA officials say phone companies oftentimes are more interested in upgrading their existing networks than expanding into inadequately covered areas.
"We're really swimming upstream in terms of where the (cellular) carriers' investment priorities have been," said Christopher Campbell, the telecommunications authority's executive director.
VTA leaders were invited to Newfane by Windham Regional Commission on Wednesday to give an overview and update on the growth of high-speed Internet access and the spread of improved cellular service in southeastern Vermont.
"There's a lot of telecommunications equipment being installed," Chris Campany, the regional commission's executive director, said at the outset of the public forum at NewBrook fire station.
"There have been a lot of questions about, when is this infrastructure going to be available, and who's going to be able to access it," Campany added.
The trouble is, there is no one source for such information. Even VTA, which is tasked with pushing for expanded broadband and cell service, is not necessarily privy to the details of projects for which the authority has not provided funding.
But Caro Thompson, the authority's broadband outreach coordinator, reiterated that state officials are pushing hard to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business.
"It doesn't matter where you are, because we are looking at every address," Thompson said.
She added this, however: "What's hard is that it takes time."
Gov. Peter Shumlin had pledged to reach that 100-percent broadband objective by the end of last year. Though his administration fell short, officials have insisted that there is broadband access or, at least, "solutions in place" to provide such access for the vast majority of Vermont addresses.
But stretching broadband throughout a low-population, mountainous state is a challenge. It's happening via a variety of mechanisms including cable, DSL service, fiber-optic line and even wireless broadband.
Officials also are working to create WiFi hot spots in population centers. Sharon Combes-Farr, Vermont Digital Economy director, on Wednesday gave an update on those projects in towns including Wilmington, Halifax and Newfane.
In response to a question from a meeting attendee, Campbell said it is "pretty much inevitable" that broadband delivery methods will overlap in some areas.
"You have different networks and different technologies, and those different networks have different geographies," he said.
But choices are few -- or even nonexistent -- in other areas. And what qualifies as "broadband" -- in other words, what speed makes for "high speed" -- can vary depending on who you ask. The federal standard -- which also is used for Vermont's broadband mapping -- is 768 kilobits per second for downloads and 200 kilobits per second for uploads.
Thompson said VTA uses a faster requirement for projects funded by the authority -- minimum speeds of four megabits per second for downloads and one megabit per second for uploads.
None of that means much for those who still have no access to broadband. Andrea McAuslan of Marlboro said she is not convinced that high-speed Internet is as readily accessible as state officials claim.
"I don't believe the 99-percent figure that the governor is promoting," she said.
McAuslan said DSL service became available last year at her home.
"But there are plenty of people in Marlboro who do not have it," she said.
For information about broadband availability at specific addresses, VTA officials suggest visiting www.broadbandvt.org. Residents also can call the state Public Service Department at 1-800-622-4496.
Also, information on specific VTA projects is available at www.telecomvt.org.
Campbell said broadband expansion is continuing. Some projects are funded and will be under way this year, he said, while some federally funded projects have 2015 deadlines.
"We'd certainly like to see them sooner than that, but we don't really have control over that," he said.
In contrast to broadband development, in which officials examine services available at specific addresses, Campbell said cellular-service expansion is based on needs in corridors.
For instance, AT&T recently has developed tower proposals in Newfane to bring better mobile-phone service to the Dover Road and Route 30 corridors.
Cellular providers, Campbell said, have three priorities -- adding capacity to handle increased mobile-data usage; upgrading networks to provide faster speeds; and expanding coverage into new areas.
That latter priority often is the lowest priority for carriers, he said. VTA tries to make such projects more attractive by developing wireless infrastructure, leasing wireless equipment and providing grants.
"We're trying to bring down the cost (of expanding cellular networks)," Campbell said. "We can't change the population density in our area. We can't change the terrain. The only thing we can do is lower costs."
The uneven pace of progress in rural Vermont led Blake Prescott of Newfane to question how soon residents can reasonably expect improved broadband and cellular service.
He compared it to "bringing a train in where we just have horses."
Prescott said efforts in Newfane to start a neighborhood watch were hampered by the inability of participants to call in or even text-message information about suspicious activity.
"The problem that we have here is, the lack of communication makes a tremendous difference," Prescott said. "We need to improve all of this."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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