VTel working 'around the clock' on broadband
BRATTLEBORO -- You'd be forgiven for thinking a firm dubbed Vermont Telephone Co. is busy building cell-phone towers.
But the Springfield-based company is working to correct that impression.
For the purpose of projects springing up around the state and in Windham County, VTel Wireless is the appropriate moniker. And the company is trying to create a high-speed, wireless Internet system across Vermont -- not a traditional cell-phone network.
Also, there's that word -- "towers." It's been a flashpoint in some communities, so much so that Diane Guité, VTel's vice president of business development, prefers the term "monopole" to describe the company's latest design.
She also says VTel is, wherever possible, using existing structures such as buildings and grain silos to extend a network that -- while admittedly behind schedule -- is eventually supposed to cover most of the Green Mountain State.
"We had really hoped to be done by the end of this year. We're moving as fast as we can," Guité said. "We're hiring people. We're growing, and we're working around the clock."
She added that "our plan is to have coverage in 96, 97 percent of the state when we're all done."
That kind of coverage has been a major political priority for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who had pledged to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business in Vermont by the end of this year.
He's going to fall a bit short of that goal, though state officials are quick to say they've come a long way in a relatively short time.
Since 2010, broadband has been extended to more than 30,000 additional addresses, according to state estimates. And more than 98 percent of Vermonters have broadband access, said Kiersten Bourgeois, senior project manager for the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
"We're pleased with the progress that we've made. Obviously, it's a huge undertaking," Bourgeois said.
At this point, she said, there are fewer than 200 Vermont addresses that lack "solutions in place" -- meaning broadband projects under way. Officials are "confident" that they will identify solutions for those sites sometime early next year, Bourgeois said.
The relatively rapid deployment of high-speed Internet in a mountainous, thinly populated state has happened via fiber optics, DSL service and traditional cable lines.
There also is wireless Internet service. While VTel allocated about $80 million of $116 million in federal funding to fiber optics, the company is spending the other $36 million on wireless broadband, Guité said.
Also, "we've probably invested $100 million of our own capital over the last 10 years," she said.
VTel is betting that its wireless broadband can compete with traditional high-speed Internet offered by cable companies.
"We're a local company, and we're going head-to-head with the worldwide giants," Guité said. "It's not going to be an easy battle."
Guité said VTel's wireless service is designed with affordability in mind, starting at $10 a month and reaching $40 monthly for a typically active Internet user.
Average download speeds are estimated at 25 megabytes per second, though that will vary widely based on a customer's proximity to VTel's antennas.
Guité also touts the company's deep Vermont roots.
"We're local," she said. "Customer service is kind of our bread and butter."
Reaching those customers with wireless broadband, however, is a tall order. VTel has roughly 180 projects going statewide, though that doesn't mean the company is building 180 new towers.
"That can mean anything from going inside a church steeple to going on existing towers," Guité said.
The company's recent interactions with Vermont regulators confirm that. In the last six months alone, state records show, VTel Wireless has won 26 certificates of public good to install telecommunications equipment in Vermont towns.
Only six of those projects involve building new towers, according to online Vermont Public Service Board records. For the other 20, VTel is attaching its antennas to structures including existing towers, grain silos and buildings including an industrial feed-mixing plant in St. Albans, a penthouse in Barre and the Handy Extended Stay Suites in Colchester.
VTel also has found such sites in Windham County. In Brattleboro, the company has received state permission to erect a shorter, 50-foot tower atop Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
In approving that project, the Public Service Board noted that VTel's equipment "will be located on the rooftop of a building that already hosts a telecommunications tower and related facilities. The proposed tower will be similar in appearance and slightly lower than the existing tower."
Guité said VTel also wants to put wireless-broadband equipment on existing towers in Westminster and Townshend and on two towers in Putney. Those projects are in various stages of development.
But sometimes, Guité says, building a new tower is the only feasible option.
"Oftentimes, those (existing) structures aren't that high," she said. "Given the hilly Vermont terrain, it can be difficult to use existing Vermont infrastructure."
She maintains that, when the company must build, administrators are using a "monopole" structure designed to blend as much as possible into the environment.
"I think we've done our best to address the aesthetic concerns with this design," she said.
That design has been proposed for a property on Pond Road in Vernon and in Guilford, where the state Public Service Board approved VTel's plans for a 90-foot-tall monopole on Barney Hill Road.
For that site, board members wrote that VTel "will employ a relatively short tower, flush-mounted antennas and will use a matte gray finish to avoid glare in order to minimize visibility from the surrounding area."
VTel wants to construct a taller monopole in Marlboro, where plans call for a 140-foot tower on a 2.5-acre parcel that has been purchased by the company off Old Hogback Road behind the Skyline Restaurant.
There is a public informational meeting regarding that project planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Marlboro Elementary School. VTel representatives are expected to attend the session, which is organized by Marlboro Selectboard and the town planning commission.
Guité said the Marlboro structure would serve as a "hub" tower in the planned VTel network.
"That's a really important site for us. It's going to be providing signals to a bunch of towers in the area," she said.
"Changing one site can really impact the ability to connect with other sites," Guité added. "They're all interconnected."
There are cases, however, where changes have been necessary after VTel encountered public backlash.
For example, the company last year proposed a new, 150-foot-tall tower in historic Newfane Village. The structure was supposed to provide wireless Internet and room for collocated equipment from other providers while also improving public-safety communications for Windham County Sheriff's Department.
But the location -- picturesque, historic Newfane Village -- prompted concerns. Dick Marek, a state representative and a village trustee, said commercial activity is prohibited on the county property where VTel wanted to build.
"I don't think the Newfane Village site could have passed review" by regulators, Marek said.
So VTel shifted gears and has found a new spot in Newfane off Route 30 near West River Valley Veterinary Service, Guité said.
"We should file for permitting pretty soon," she said. "We have a site that we're hoping is set back and not as intrusive."
Town officials have not yet received official word of VTel's revised plan. But Marek said he thinks the new spot is "a good location, and it does a better job for transmission."
"This is an instance where I think the company has been very cooperative," he said.
Public pressure also was a factor in Wardsboro, where VTel backed off plans to place broadband antennas inside the steeple of Wardsboro Methodist Church.
Though VTel already had received a certificate of public good for the project, the church's trustees voted to terminate their agreement with the company after hearing opposition earlier this year.
Guité said VTel now wants to build a 90-foot tower off Newell Hill Road in Wardsboro, though that, too, has caused controversy.
"There are some abutting landowners who aren't thrilled about our plans," Guité said. "It's in permitting. We're working to address their concerns in terms of setbacks."
There also have been snags in VTel's relationship with state officials. In March, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority announced it was terminating two broadband-grant awards to VTel worth a reported $3.4 million.
At the time, authority officials said VTel had requested "an extension of the project-delivery date and other changes" for one of the grants. The company and the authority were "unable to reach agreement," officials said, and the authority "determined it was time to examine other solutions to bring broadband to unserved addresses."
From her post at the state Agency of Commerce, Bourgeois now says VTel has "made a lot of progress, for sure, particularly on the fiber side."
She also said the state understands that there can be permitting issues that delay large-scale implementation of wireless-broadband technology.
"We're obviously hoping that VTel serves as many people as they can as quickly as they can," Bourgeois said. "I think it's fair to say that we are encouraging them to keep their foot on the gas."
Guité said the company is doing just that and recently activated wireless-broadband equipment on Mt. Ascutney. That is VTel's "first site that is operational for commercial service," she said.
VTel now expects to be finished with its broadband projects by mid-2015, Guité said. In some cases -- for instance, in Jamaica and Stratton -- the company still is searching for suitable wireless sites.
"The state has been incredibly cooperative and understanding of delays and changes," Guité said. "We want to keep people happy."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.