MONTPELIER — With less than 1 percent of homes in Vermont left to connect, the Shumlin administration is declaring victory in its quest to bring universal broadband coverage to the state.
Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday hosted representatives from telecommunications companies serving Vermont at a press roundtable to tout the administration’s progress in delivering high-speed Internet service. Shumlin had pledged complete coverage for all of Vermont by the end of the year.
Shumlin claimed victory despite the fact about 3,000 homes do not yet have access. However, solutions for those homes are in the project pipelines of various service providers, according to the administration.
“Today we are over 99 percent,” he said. “The great news, as a result of your partnership, is we have less than 1 percent to hook up and we can count on this hand — and I can’t tell you exactly how many fingers, but on this one hand — the number of folks’ connections and locations in Vermont to which we have no solution.”
The new connections will help the state create jobs, enhance public safety, boost a smart grid electrical system and provide more educational opportunities for Vermont students, the governor said.
Elected in 2010, Shumlin succeeded Republican Gov. James Douglas, who had espoused a similar plan but was unable to complete it. The state had 89 percent of homes with access to broadband at that time, Shumlin said. But the remaining homes were a challenge. They tended to be at the end of rural roads where providers saw little financial incentive to continue building out their networks.
With more than $170 million in federal stimulus funding — the most per capita among the states — Vermont sought to create a public-private partnership with telecommunications companies to deliver service to “middle-mile” and “last-mile” locations. The stimulus funding, along with state money, leveraged investments from the companies.
“Thirty-thousand Vermont homes that didn’t have connection when we took over now have connection because of the partnership,” Shumlin said. “If you’re one of those 30,000-plus people who’s gotten connected in the last two and a half years, it makes a huge difference in your life.”
The additional homes are being served by various wired and wireless connections delivered by a host of companies, including FairPoint Communications, VTel, AT&T, Verizon, SoverNet and Comcast.
There is some debate over what constitutes high-speed service. The state considers speeds as low as 300KB per second to qualify as high-speed service. Many streaming video sites, however, and other popular online services require at least 3MB per second.
Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding brushed off a question about whether the effort is a success because of the 3,000 homes that remain without service. Spaulding said “most Vermonters would be very impressed” with the administration’s delivery of service to more than 99 percent of the state’s homes.
“We’re thrilled that for all intents and purposes we’ve gotten to where we want to go. But importantly … this is not a marathon. It’s not 26.2 miles. This race doesn’t end,” he said.
The remaining uncovered locations are “ends of dirt roads or goat paths,” Spaulding said.
Several telecom companies touted investments in recent years that helped deliver service to rural parts of Vermont. Beth Fastiggi, state president for FairPoint in Vermont, said her company has added hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable in the state.
“We’ve invested nearly $100 million of our own money in the past five years, adding more than 500 miles of new fiber to bring broadband Internet to Vermonters,” she said. “Since 2008, we had broadband of nearly 66 percent, and now we’re at nearly 92 percent of our customers who can get broadband access.”
Owen Smith, AT&T’s regional vice president for Vermont, said the company plans to continue investing and upgrading its network in Vermont and across the country. It has spent $50 million in Vermont since 2009, he said.
“It really has been a partnership with our company, other companies and the state of Vermont,” Smith said. “We will continue to invest these dollars in the future.”
“They expect it to do some amazing things, and, in fact, it does do some amazing things,” Smith said.
He said consumers expect fast and better services every day, which will require a continued partnership with government.
“Now it’s a new game. People expect a lot from the computer, from the cellphone,” he said. “To keep up pace we announced back in the fall that we would be spending some $66 billion nationally to build out our network across the country to reach about 99 percent of all users in the country, and that includes the state of Vermont.”
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