Wednesday January 2, 2013

POWNAL -- Barring any unforeseen glitches, access to high-speed broadband internet is on track to become available to every household and business in Vermont by the end of 2013, according to Gov. Peter Shumlin and Connect Vermont Chief Karen Marshall. The goal of 100 percent high-speed connectivity by the end of this year was a pledge of Shumlin's during his first term in 2011, spurring the Connect Vt. initiative.

Concurrently, the governor's office announced a $5 million grant Monday to expand cellular service in Southern Vermont in Bennington, Rutland, Windham, and Windsor counties. That award will go to VTel Wireless, a Springfield-based affiliate of Vermont Telephone, slated to invest $15 million total within 19 areas of the southern part of the state, including Route 7 in Pownal and also:

* Andover Road from Andover to Weston

* Route 9 in Marlboro and Wilmington

* Routes 100 and 100a in Plymouth

* Route 100 in Wardsboro

* Route 103 in Mount Holly

* Route 133 from Pawlet to Middletown Springs

Overseeing the initiative to "connect Vermont," Marshall said the mission was twofold: Universal broadband and vastly expanded cellular service.

"This grant ... represents a significant investment in leading-edge micro and macro cell technology that will meet the needs of Vermonters. ... Our public funds leverage federal and private funds already at work as we avoid duplication of infrastructure and stretch our resources further," she wrote in a prepared statement.

The grant was recently approved by the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) Board. Shumlin's office said the investment of state funds would help fill in challenging gaps in coverage. Funding was included in state appropriations as part of the broadband initiative.

VTA Executive Director Christopher Campbell called the award the most significant to date for expanded cellular service from the telecommunications authority. Marshall said Vermont was "one of the most connected places on the planet" following two years of infrastructure work, both cellular and broadband. According to her, in 2010, there were 256,343 locations with broadband access and about 37,761 lacking.

As of this past June, Marshall tallied 282,066 locations with access to a high-speed provider -- just over 95 percent -- and 12,494 in the process of receiving service (4.2 percent). With about 500 locations left, largely in remote areas of the state, Marshall said those areas remained a challenge; but the governor's release said the push was on to "find creative solutions to bring broadband access to those locations."

As part of the VTel cellular upgrade, the company will also install "small-cell sites" on utility poles to bring cell service to areas that are especially difficult to serve because of topography. The small-cell equipment is installed at short intervals along roadways to boost signals.

The soon-to-be upgraded 4G LTE-technology system is part of VTel's Wireless Open World, a federally funded project to deliver home broadband service over wireless networks. Many of the WOW broadband service areas overlap with "target corridors" for cell service, which are main travel routes identified as either lacking cell service completely or having inconsistent coverage.

Vermont now ranks fourth in the U.S. in terms of average broadband speed connection according to the governor's office. Marshall said the venture was creating "both connections and jobs" in the telecommunications sector.