Remote areas a challenge for broadband service

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(Host) Vermont is on track to have much of the state covered with high speed Internet by the end of next year.

But the agency charged with overseeing the telecommunications work says it may be more difficult to blanket the entire state with cell phone service.

Expanding cell coverage and upgrading the Internet were the twin goals of legislation passed two years ago.

VPR’s John Dillon has this status report on Vermont’s "E State" initiative:

(Dillon) Last week, Burlington Telecom, the city owned cable TV and Internet service, announced plans to expand beyond the city limits.

That’s good news for consumers – and for the state’s effort to boost broadband coverage, says Bill Shuttleworth. He’s the executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, the state agency charged with meeting the legislative mandate to have the state covered by the end of 2010.

(Shuttleworth) "If they build in areas that are un-served, I think that’s wonderful. If they build in areas that are already served and provide competition, that meets part of the VTA mandate to have these services affordable. And nothing brings about affordability like competition. So I think there are a number of very positive reasons for them to expand outside of Burlington."

(Dillon) Shuttleworth says that phone and cable companies have plans in place to cover 90 percent of the state with high speed Internet service.

To fill in the gaps, the Telecommunicatons Authority is hoping a second round of federal stimulus money will help pay for new infrastructure projects.

(Shuttleworth) "So the high speed is in relatively good shape. We’ll know more when we get some feedback from the federal stimulus funding."

(Dillon) The federal money could pay for service to places like Canaan, tucked high in Vermont’s Northeast corner. Canaan dairy farmer Bill Johnson – who also serves in the state Legislature – says he’s back to using dial up after chronic problems with a wireless Internet service provider.

(Johnson) "When I talk to my friends and colleagues in other parts of the state they usually inquire about whether or not we have access to broadband up here, and I say let’s take it one step at a time, I’m still hoping to have a phone that works on a rainy day."

(Dillon) Johnson says his business uses an Internet-based payroll service. But with the dial-up connection, it sometimes takes two hours just to enter the data.

(Johnson) "This is a very remote area up here, and I’m not sure it’s a top priority for the telecom providers."

(Dillon) Getting cell phone service is also a challenge in areas of the state where there enough customers to justify the investment.

The other problem is that the state’s hilly terrain blocks signals.

Shuttleworth of the Telecommunications Authority is hoping to reach a deal with major cell phone companies to work with the state to install new cell sites. But he says the work to completely cover Vermont will slip past the 2010 deadline.

(Shuttleworth) "The time frame has shifted beyond what we wanted to accomplish. Getting to these agreements with the national carriers is absolutely critical."

(Dillon) Shuttleworth says the state is trying to put together proposals to place cell sites on wind turbines and other locations in order to reduce the cost for the national companies.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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