VTel Tower in Cavendish, which already has trees growing above it.

VTel Tower in Cavendish, which already has trees growing above it.

Two articles aired by Vermont Public Radio (VPR) this week once again call into question why doesn’t Cavendish have town wide broadband that meets or exceeds the federal government’s definition of 25 Mbps down and 3 up, or 25/3?

It’s not for lack of trying.

In June 2014, Cavendish started a Telecommunications Committee (CTC) to address the critical need for broadband. With the surrounding towns of Chester, Springfield and Mt. Holly all having fiber wired to the home by VTel, Cavendish was trying to make do with TDS for the majority of the town, Comcast in the most populated areas and Fair Point (now Consolidated Communications) in the Knapp Pond area.

At the June 2014 Select Board meeting, Rich Svec, town manager at the time, explained to the board how the new TDS field services representative for Vermont, stated that TDS was very aware that the current system in Cavendish is maxed out, yet upgrades or changes are not planned until 2015.

Basically, a system constructed several years ago is no longer adequate to handle the same number of customers today, due to increased customer bandwidth usage. [More people are video streaming, sending pictures etc.] Building a new fiber cable from Cavendish to the world, becomes an extremely expensive operation due to the distances involved and the make ready work required in other operating companies.

In November 2014, Cavendish Connects posted Cavendish Telecommunications: Why there is such a problem. to explain the situation to that point in time.

Since then, the CTC has met with TDS, Comcast and the state’s Telecommunication Committee multiple times over the ensuing years. Several surveys have been conducted to fully demonstrate how bad speeds are. Many hours were spent pouring over maps determining where the unserved and under served areas were by addresses. Ultimately, the following areas were identified as most in need:

A (Twenty Mile Stream)

B (East Rd and Brook Rd areas) 

C (Knapp Pond/Tarbell areas)

The most unserved/under served area was determined to be c) Knapp Pond/Tarbell area, which was primarily Fair Point (Consolidated Communications) territory.

Early on it was discovered that the state did not consider Cavendish an un served or under served town since VTel was suppose to be providing those portions of town not covered by existing Internet service providers (ISPs) with their wireless system. Only by providing speed test data could it be proved to the state that VTel’s wireless system was not working in many parts of Cavendish and that with the company’s fiber wired to the home for their landline customers (Springfield, Chester and Mt. Holly) Cavendish was being adversely impacted –lower property values and not attractive to home buyers.  It should be noted that by then, the state was aware that the VTel system had serious flaws as trees, foliage, mountains, hills and rock ledge all block wireless signals.

In December 2016 it looked like things were moving forward when Comcast agreed to apply for state funds to wire the Knapp Pond/Tarbell Hill area. The state awarded Comcast a grant in 2017 for $362,250 for just that purpose. The state only had $500,000 to give out in funds and Cavendish was certainly getting the lion’s share of it.

The final award was announced the summer of 2017. The next step was the state’s drawing up an agreement between themselves and Comcast. Ultimately, Comcast, who by that point was in litigation with the state, walked away from the grant. CTC was not informed of Comcast’s decision until the fall 2018.

In spite of the CTC asking the state to allow the earmarked funds to be used for another Internet project in Cavendish, the money was reassigned elsewhere.

During the summer of 2018, CTC worked with Windsor South West Regional Planning Council in convening a meeting of Cavendish, Weathersfield and Ludlow to discuss other options.

This brings us to the two articles posted by VPR. In the first article, Built with Federal Funding VTel’s Broadband Wireless Service Failed to Fully Deliver, it’s recognized that the VTel story of receiving federal funds for its wireless system that did not deliver was old news. Critics for years have called out the company for failing to fully deliver with its Wireless Open World system. Yet VTel’s use of federal money to build its network has new relevance now as the state again works to build out broadband. That’s because the federal agency that funded the VTel project says the areas supposedly reached by the wireless network are no longer underserved, so no more money is available. Clay Purvis, the state's telecommunications director, said a huge part of Vermont is no longer eligible for the funding because VTel got the funds to serve those areas.

The second article Vermont Legislature Eyes ECFiber As Model For Community-Based Broadband Build-out discusses how law makers are looking to community based solutions, such as ECFiber. Yes Cavendish was invited to be part of this 24 town telecommunications district, but at the time of its formation, Cavendish had already agreed to support VTel’s efforts. At this juncture, ECFiber is limiting its service to its participating towns so it’s not an option.

 It should be noted that TDS has done some work since 2015 but not nearly enough to meet the continually growing demand for broadband. Many are complaining and frustrated by slow speeds. TDS did receive Connect America Funding (CAF) and supposedly some of those funds will be used to build a better system for Cavendish. There are promises from TDS for better speeds come the summer. However, CTC has been hearing that for years now and it’s feeling a bit like, “the checks in the mail.”

Through out Vermont, different towns are trying different things. However, one of the members of the CTC, who has considerable experience with building Internet systems noted the following, We do not  need additional providers to cherry pick profitable areas of Vermont. What we need is funds to help the existing providers expand decent  service into the non-profitable under-served areas of the state.
Our state representatives can help by canceling the misdirected laws  that will not allow Towns to fund planning of a fiber to the home  network where none exists today. As we have discussed before, We cannot  get any grant money until we have a plan, and there is no way to fund  the planning process short of "bake sales". That is a lot of cookies.
In short, we need "Big State Government" to get out of our way and stop  impeding the Internet's progress. If the state wants to fund the  Planning process, that would be fine. If not, then allow us to fund it  locally, and then if they want to fund construction programs that would also be fine. If not, at least we would be able to pursue Federal or  private grants.