Internet access faulted in Shaftsbury survey

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SHAFTSBURY — Most residents have internet access — it just isn't enough.

While about 92 percent of respondents to a town internet survey reported they have internet at home, 44 percent said it is not sufficient for their use — it is either "way too slow" or "not fast enough." And 7.4 percent of respondents said internet service isn't available at their homes.

Between March 1 and April 15, the town collected 260 online responses to the survey, designed by Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins and the town planning commission. That represents about 17 percent of households in town.

The impetus for the survey came from the 2018 Connectivity Summit, held last November in Dover, concerning internet connectivity.

"The real point of it was — nobody is going to fix our broadband problems," Scoggins said of the summit. "We're going to have to do it on our own. A relatively easy first step is to do a survey. That's what we decided to do."

Scoggins said he was hoping for more responses, but he's not disappointed. "I think that's a good number," he said.

He said he believes the survey results are illustrative of the town as a whole — most people in town have internet, but there are areas that can't access it.

The survey ties into the rewrite of the town plan, which is happening now.

"As part of that five-year plan, we're looking at what can we do to get broadband internet to everyone in town," Scoggins said. "The goal is to find out what the real extent of our broadband internet is, who doesn't have service."

Scoggins said officials felt they could not entirely trust providers' coverage maps to determine who doesn't have service.

Comcast is the town's main internet provider, with wired broadband. Consolidated Communications provides DSL, and VTeL provides radio wave fixed wireless service, Scoggins said.

The next step is comparing provider maps with survey results and then conducting a door-to-door survey, to try to figure out the extent of the problem, Scoggins said.

"We don't have firm plans on it," he said of a door-to-door survey. "We'll be discussing it in the planning commission."

That survey would focus on areas believed to be underserved by access to broadband, DSL or fixed wireless, Scoggins said. These areas include Shaftsbury Hollow Road and Granger Hollow Road.

Scoggins said he was struck by the number of people who came to him while this survey was in progress, wanting to know when internet access would be fixed.

"Everyone that I have spoken to, or has spoken with me, has been anxious to see something done about the broadband internet situation," he said.

He said the town has also heard from real estate agents that they lose sales when the buyer finds out they won't be able to have internet at their home.

"So we feel like it's holding back our economy," Scoggins said. "There's beautiful land on Shaftsbury Hollow Road, but if somebody can't build a house and get internet service there, they're not going to want to come."

The town had previously applied for a USDA grant to enable them to pay a service provider to extend coverage. But the town wasn't eligible, as the money has to go directly to the entity that owns the lines, Scoggins said.

"We went back to Plan A, which was the survey — find out exactly what the problem is, and then develop a strategy for filling in the gaps," he said. The town has not yet looked for other grant options, he said.

Cell phone coverage

The town also wanted to get a sense of problems with cell coverage through the survey, Scoggins said.

"Because a lot of people considered that just as important an issue as broadband to the home," he said. "A lot of people feel like the ability to use their phones wherever, whenever they want to is really important."

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Respondents also identified cell phone coverage as lacking.

Of 144 respondents, about 41 percent reported that cell phone service was not available at their homes.

About 79 percent of survey respondents said they would support town efforts to expand cell phone coverage.

The town is currently focusing mainly on broadband, taking a "wait-and-see" approach with cell phone coverage, Scoggins said.

Specifically, the town is waiting to see what happens with FirstNet,a nationwide public safety communications network being built by AT&T. The promise is that it will provide additional cell phone coverage for AT&T customers, Scoggins said.

The only other thing the town has done regarding cell phone coverage, he said, is removing a bylaw restriction on building cell phone towers.

"We're taking a fairly hands-off approach to building cell towers," he said. "We don't have any restrictions in our bylaws about [it]."

Statewide problem

State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said Shaftsbury's situation is broadly similar to others in the state.

"That is what we see in rural Vermont, for sure," she said. "It's a pretty big problem, as far as I'm concerned."

Lack of broadband coverage is certainly an economic development issue, but it's also becoming a public safety one, she said.

In rural Vermont, there have been challenges with quality and repair times for landline networks, leading to concern that people might not be able to call for help if needed, she said.

"You might also not be able to call your doctor," she said. "We have a lot of telemedicine happening in rural Vermont."

And if there's no internet or cell service, and the landline system isn't being maintained, "then we have a situation that's deteriorating," Sibilia said.

"In rural areas, we have to make sure that they are not being left behind," she said.

Sibilia said she thinks the formation of communications union districts in Southern Vermont can happen, and probably should happen as soon as possible.

"We don't have a bunch of telecommunciations experts lying around on our volunteer boards for each of our towns," she said.

She said she thinks towns would have more resources if they work together.

Sibilia mentioned a bill that has passed the house, H. 513, that would provide support and resources to municipalities surrounding broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas.

That bill is currently in the Senate Committee on Finance.

Right now, national providers won't cover rural areas, and the state doesn't have the $600 million it would cost to build fiber-to-the-premises broadband throughout Vermont, Sibilia said.

"That is where we are today," she said. "If you want it, you are going to have to build it."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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