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VTel's Broadband Project Complete But Not Fully Operational

Springfield-based VTel received more than $110 million in federal grants to expand broadband service in Vermont, but state officials now say many are still waiting for service.

A statewide wireless broadband system paid for, in part, by the federal government is complete, according to the agency that funded the project.   

But state officials say many Vermonters are still waiting for service.

In 2010, Springfield-based VTel received more than $110 million in federal grants and loans to expand broadband. The funded projects included an ambitious wireless broadband system the company said would cover nearly all of the state. At that time, the project was scheduled for completion by 2013.

Eventually, the federal government extended the deadline for VTel and others who received funding to Sept. 30, 2015.  

Now that the deadline has passed there are questions about how much of the system is operational.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service is the agency overseeing the funding program. Ted Brady, Vermont’s state director for USDA Rural Development, says in the eyes of the federal government, the VTel wireless project is complete.

“They’ve met the intent of the application. They’ve provided service to 97 percent of the territory that they identified in the application," says Brady. "They’ve completed 132 towers even though the application said they were only going to do 119."

Brady says federal inspectors have confirmed VTel’s infrastructure is in place. But it’s not clear to anyone how much of the system is actually up and running.  

"They've met the intent of the application. They've provided service to 97 percent of the territory that they identified in the application. They've completed 132 towers even though the application said they were only going to do 119." - Ted Brady, Vermont state director for USDA Rural Development

VTel President Michel Guite, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said in the past the system will serve as many as 97 percent of Vermont’s 300,000 addresses.

Jim Porter, director of the Division of Telecom and Connectivity with the Public Service Department says he hasn’t received information from VTel on how many are being served currently, but based on calls he’s getting, many people the project is supposed to reach are waiting.

“Anecdotally from people we hear from on a daily basis, the service is certainly not operational insofar as being offered to the public yet,” says Porter.

Porter says there are still three towers yet to be constructed in the system, so in his view the project isn’t complete.

The federal government says those towers are above and beyond what VTel promised and are being paid for by the company.

But Porter says at least one of them, a tower in Cabot, would serve a pocket of addresses that still have no broadband access – which was a central goal of the federal program.  

Reaching them is critical to the state’s long overdue promise to provide 100 percent coverage.

Cabot is opposing the VTel tower application before the Vermont Public Service Board. 

Porter says in the five years since the VTel wireless project began, many previously unserved locations in the state now have broadband coverage. He says he's confident the project will eventually be fully operational and will provide a better and lower cost alternative for many Vermonters. 

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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