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Got Broadband? State Says You Do Even If It's From A Cell Signal

Alberto Masnovo
The state says just one percent of Vt. addresses are without broadband service, but there are some who question that figure.

There are 295,065 business and residential addresses in Vermont. The state says just one percent of them are without broadband service. The number does not include satellite broadband. 

There are some who question the state’s figure, citing their own lack of broadband. The state says in most cases those individuals do have access, but it is not from a wire or cable running to their homes.  

When Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last November that 99 percent of Vermont addresses have broadband access, Todd Gareiss wasn’t convinced.

“It seemed silly,” Gareiss says. “I can name 40 people on my road that don’t have access to real broadband.” 

Gareiss has a business which he runs from New York instead of Vermont partly because of broadband service.

“It’s one thing that keeps me from moving there," he says. "Realistically I can’t bring my company there. I can’t service my clients up there."

The Department Of Public Service has information on broadband available to each Vermont address. While it is not public because of confidentiality agreements with the broadband companies, any Vermonter can call the department at 1-800-622-4496 and find out which broadband service is available at a specific address. 

When Gareiss called, he was told there is broadband available at his house in Marlboro: through AT&T, his cellular service provider. Gareiss then called AT&T, and based on that conversation he’s convinced he has no broadband access where he lives.  

Todd Fitch also called the Department Of Public Service and was told he has broadband access at his home in Londonderry.

“I said, ‘Really!  What service is available?’ She said, ‘AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless,’” he recalls.

According to Fitch, who is a Verizon customer, only on rare occasions does his cell phone indicate he has any service at his location. There is a chance that with the right equipment, such as an outside antenna that might boost a weak signal, Fitch and Gareiss could get broadband service. Then, by using a smart phone as a wireless hotspot or employing a modem, they could access broadband with their home computers.

"In many cases the data is wrong, in many cases the data was right and the consumer didn't know that service was available from a provider." - Corey Chase, Dept. of Public Service

But neither of them thinks that’s possible and both believe the state is mistaken to count them among those who have broadband access. 

The state figures are based on information supplied by broadband providers.

Corey Chase of the Public Service Department says the state also relies on call-out surveys and feedback from Vermonters to determine if the information from the providers is accurate.   

“We have hundreds of addresses that we verify in our biannual review,” Chase explains. “In many cases the data is wrong, in many cases the data was right and the consumer didn't know that service was available from a provider.”

According to Chase, in most cases where people don’t believe they have broadband service, it’s determined they actually do: through their cell phone service provider.  

There are 8,254 Vermont addresses that have broadband access only through a mobile provider; in most cases the provider is AT&T or Verizon.                                                

As wireless technology has advanced and Vermont coverage has expanded, broadband from mobile providers has become an option for more Vermonters, but it comes at a price and with some limitations.

Tom Cooch and his wife Sandy live on a hillside in Braintree. Their house looks across a valley to a cell tower that beams a strong signal to a small unit in their living room and from there to their laptops and other devices.

Cooch’s broadband comes bundled with his family’s cell phone service.  He estimates broadband alone costs him $100 per month.* There’s also a cap on how much Cooch can download.  He pays for 14 gigabytes per month. Anything above that triggers an added charge.

As Cooch was reminded recently, it doesn’t take much for him and his wife to reach the limit when they stream video.

“She picked out something that ran about 20 minutes and I started doing a course online and everyday we were getting a text message saying, ‘You’ve used up 50 percent of your allotment, you’ve used up 75 percent of your allotment.' It’s not what we would really like,” Cooch says.

He says Verizon’s broadband is reliable, but he’d prefer service that’s less expensive and less restricted.

Jim Porter, the Public Service Department’s telecommunications director, says the state can’t regulate the cost and speed of broadband.

Porter says as work is done this year to bring broadband to those who don’t have it, the 8,000 addresses whose only access is through a mobile provider will also have more choices.

“For the vast majority of those addresses, there will also be a product offered by VTel and, in many instances, Fairpoint,” he says.

Porter says this year VTel will begin serving many addresses with high speed wireless service and FairPoint is expanding its DSL service with the help of a federal grant.

Other smaller projects are also scheduled for completion this year.

*Verizon has a variety of broadband plans.  Those who subscribe to the company's "Share Everything Plan" pay $20/month for a broadband router. Non-subscribers pay $50/month. The download cap is 5 GB.

Verizon also offers "HomeFusion Broadband Plans" starting at $60/month for 10 GB of data, $90/month for 20 GB or $120/month for 30 GB.  Other plans are also offered.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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