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State Has Broadband Plans For Hardest To Reach Locations

As the state ponders how to satisfy future broadband Internet needs, the effort is still underway to provide service to the remaining Vermont addresses without it. 

While not every location has broadband  yet,  in nearly every case there’s been a plan in place to serve Vermont’s roughly 300,000 E-911 addresses. 

Until recently, though, there have always been a handful of the most difficult to reach addresses for which there was no plan.  The state has promised 100 percent coverage, so plans had to be devised.

That’s the job of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority whose mission is, in part, to assure that, “ all residences and business in all regions of the state have access to affordable broadband services.”

To reach those last few addresses, the VTA started  by seeking broadband providers willing to apply for grant money to help serve them.  There were no takers. 

So the VTA started brainstorming alternatives.  The state had never worked with satellite broadband companies and because of quality issues, satellite has not been considered ‘broadband’. But the service has improved, so the  VTA approached the satellite provider Exede, formerly known as Wild Blue. 

They agreed on a demonstration project in which the state would pay most of the installation fee for unserved addresses who signed up for the service.  

The project was contingent on the state finding 20 willing customers out of 66 locations deemed eligible for the program. 

But only a few expressed an interest and the Exede project fell through. 

The VTA also came up with a plan to provide unserved residents with financial assistance to pay cable companies to extend their lines. 

The program will pay up to $6,000 of the cost of extending cable to an address. 

The Exede and the cable extension programs represent the first time the VTA has gone directly to consumers with an offer to help pay the cost of providing broadband to an address.

The approach raises the question: If the consumer isn’t interested in having broadband access, should the state still pay to provide access to that address just to meet the 100 percent coverage goal?  The VTA says that depends on the specific situation.

Reaching the last addresses can be expensive. Last year, the VTA awarded a $64,000 grant to serve 11 locations in Rutland County.  

A single address in Whitingham serves as an example of what’s involved in determining where a solution is needed and then finding one.

VTA Executive Director Chris Campbell told a recent board meeting that one potential solution for that address was to extend a nearby fiber project at a cost of more than $54,000. 

“I’m just trying to give you the worst-case scenario,” Campbell said. 

He also pointed up another difficulty.  The database of addresses doesn’t distinguish between a full-time residence a camp or other unoccupied location.  

"This one address is one we’re trying to confirm does anybody actually live there,”  Campbell told the board.

Verification efforts include looking at satellite images to see if a house is at a location, contacting town clerks to verify an address is on the grand list, and driving roads to visually locate a residence or building.

Ultimately, the VTA determined the Whitingham address should be served and can be covered by the cable extension program at a cost of $6,000 or less.

At the meeting, board member Stephen Morse brought up a concern often raised in view of the state’s claim of nearly universal broadband coverage.

Morse said he is aware of an unserved area in his town, Newfane. “I’m only using that as an example,” Morse said. “How do we know that there are people up there that are or are not being served?”

Morse was told the area will be covered by a federally funded project currently underway.

The state says it’s confident in the data, but points out there are likely addresses that it believes are served but are not. Due to terrain and signal coverage, this can be the case especially those addresses which have mobile wireless broadband coverage.

Determining which locations are unserved is something of a moving target.  The VTA  relies on broadband data collected by the state from providers and consumers.*

The database of 911 addresses is assembled from information provided by town clerks.

With each new update, a few new unserved addresses pop up while other addresses drop off.  For the moment, and significantly, the VTA says the number of addresses without a plan in place to serve them is zero, at least on paper.

Given these realities, the number may not stay at zero and the state’s effort to reach every address may go on with no clear end point. 

*Under the conditions of the federal grant that funds the survey, broadband is defined as service with speeds of at least 768 Kpbs download/200 Kbps upload.  The current Federal Communications Commission definition is much faster: 4 Mbps/1 Mbps. The Public Service Department says 78 percent of Vermont addresses currently served by broadband have speeds that meet the FCC definition.

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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