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Agency Says VTel Wireless Internet Is Meeting Goal, But Can't Verify Coverage

A federal agency says a wireless internet system funded by taxpayers is operating as it should, but says it can’t independently verify the coverage area.

Last month, the state’s congressional delegation wrote to the administrator of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service asking him to provide information showing that the Wireless Open World system built by Springfield-based VTel would serve “virtually 100 percent of Vermont’s unserved population.”

The system was built using part of a $116 million grant and loan award made to VTel in 2010.

Earlier this month, RUS administrator Brandon McBride responded.

In a letterMcBride says, “VTel has met its obligations … and has designed and constructed their network in accordance with the award application and loan-grant agreement.”

McBride says this is based on information provided by VTel.

McBride says the agency, “does not field check customer locations … RUS does not have the resources to test signal degradation and cannot verify the reliability of service.”

The delegation had requested a copy of the VTel grant agreement, along with address-specific information to show the availability of the wireless service.

According to David Weinstein, a senior policy advisor with Sen. Bernie Sanders, RUS provided a redacted copy of the agreement but did not provide the coverage information requested.

“RUS does not have a current RF (radio frequency) propagation map to verify the data,” McBride wrote. “RF propagation mapping is considered proprietary by most companies and cannot be shared.”

McBride says the agency will “check area coverage and speed” and will conduct field checks when the system is fully operational. According to McBride, "VTel has not provided a definitive time frame for the entire system to be operational," although only a few towers remain to be tested. 

Weinstein says detailed information on addresses served should be provided to the Vermont Department of Public Service to allow it to verify the coverage area.

“It needs to be independently verified,” he says. “This isn’t just holding VTel accountable, its figuring out where the state of Vermont should be investing its very limited resources to get to the goal of ubiquitous internet access.”

The state says it doesn’t have the information it needs to determine which addresses are served by the system.

Weinstein says Sanders is drawing no conclusions about the success or failure of the VTel system at this point, but simply wants to see data showing which Vermont addresses are being served.

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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