Some Vershire Residents Back Alternate Plan For Broadband

07/25/12 12:44PM By Steve Zind, Ric Cengeri
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AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach
A FairPoint Communications sign stands outside the company headquarters in South Portland, Maine. Some Vershire residents say they've got a better plan for broadband than the FairPoint service the state supports.
More than a year ago, the public service department and FairPoint Communications agreed that the company would not have to pay out 6.6 million dollars in penalties levied for poor service. 

Instead FairPoint would use the money to expand broadband to underserved areas in Vermont.

Last month FairPoint announced it would provide service in 19 Vermont towns under its agreement with the state.

But even though they've waited a long time for broadband, some residents say they've got a better plan than the FairPoint service the state supports.

The vast majority of people living in the Orange County town of Vershire have slow dialup, expensive satellite, or nothing at all for internet service.  The state considers Vershire Vermont's most underserved town.  

But when Fairpoint Communications announced it would bring DSL broadband to Vershire, under its agreement with the state, residents like Kathy Hooke weren't impressed.  Hooke's response is based in part on her experience with Fairpoint's phone service.

"We've come to accept as the norm in Vershire phone outages that last for days at a time, month after month," she says. "Why would Fairpoint suddenly turn around and say, here's a community that we want to serve and we want to do the best that we possibly can for them?"

But Hooke also doubts that FairPoint - or any DSL  - is the answer to her community's future broadband needs, adding, "It just doesn't seem like that's a step forward for us, especially when we have a viable plan that would get us moving ahead."

Hooke is referring to a plan by EC Fiber, a community based organization that wants to build a fiber optic network in 23 Central Vermont towns, including Vershire.  Fiber is capable of faster speeds and doesn't have the limitations of DSL systems which use copper wire.

The problem for EC Fiber is a policy that prevents it from getting any Vermont broadband grant money in communities where FairPoint has chosen under it's agreement with the state.    

Loredo Sola chairs EC Fiber's governing board.  He says there's a simple reason why FairPoint chose EC Fiber communities instead of other underserved towns.  

"FairPoint said we're not to do that because we want to compete with EC Fiber, so we're going to build this DSL which will shut off the funds to EC Fiber, rather than work in a cooperative fashion for the benefit of the whole state," says Sola.

Sola says giving FairPoint control over where to spend the 6.6 million dollars means it's not being used where it's needed most.  He says the state shouldn't allow FairPoint to go into places where there's already a broadband option when there are other areas that don't have options.

Sola also says by denying grant money to EC Fiber in Vershire and other towns, the state is relegating them to a technology that will become obsolete as demand increases for the higher speeds and more bandwidth that fiber is able to provide.

"The state should not be investing in technology that has flat lined," he says.  "The only future proof technology that we have available today for building out the community of Vershire and Chelsea and these other places is fiber technology."

So far it's provided service to 200 customers in Barnard with 50 more on a waiting list.

Sola says the organization hasn't been able to secure investment capital because of the credit crisis.  Grant money has also eluded the organization. Instead its relied on grassroots support by selling promissory notes to people like Kathy Hooke in Vershire.   

Other people in EC Fiber's service area have  been vocal in their criticism of FairPoint, telling state officials they have no faith in the company.

Lately, Mike Smith, FairPoint's Vermont President, has begun to push back.

"I have made a point not to bash anybody in this whole debate," Smith says.  "The fact is, there's a lot of things swirling out there that just aren't true.  This isn't an argument about technology.  It's competition. I believe that the EC Fiber model has problems sustaining itself when it's in direct competition."

Smith says its not an argument about technology because the network his company is building combines fiber and DSL.  While the speeds aren't as fast as fiber, he says they're competitive and will serve customers long into the future as improvements are made.   

Smith adds that FairPoint chose communities it will spend the 6.6 million dollars in not to compete with EC Fiber, but because those are places where their system needs upgrading. 

He acknowledges the company has received a lot of complaints from the Vershire telephone customers and says it's responding by upgrading equipment. 

Smith is confident that one day soon Vershire residents won't have the complaints about phone service or the concerns about FairPoints DSL.

"Within the next year, we won't be having this discussion."

Smith says FairPoint has the financial wherewithal to keep making improvements.  He says the company has been building cash reserves and making debt payments all the while it's been aggressively making capital improvements.

State officials say without FairPoints penalty money it would be difficult to reach the goal of getting broadband to all Vermonters by the end of next year.

Christopher Campbell is Executive Director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.  Campbell says once the state meets the goal of providing broadband to everyone, the work will continue - and whether its DSL, wireless or fiber - the technology will change to meet future needs.

Campbell says Vermont is trying to coordinate lots of different funding sources, including state funds, federal dollars, private investments and the FairPoint penalty money. 

A situation like  Vershire where FairPoint's DSL service is hampering efforts by EC Fiber to install what is considered to be a superior technology is hard to avoid.    

"These different funding sources have different parameters, they have different requirements, they have different preferences," Campbell explains. " The way they all fit together isn't always perfect and probably can't be perfect.  What we're trying to do is to try to make sure that everybody has at least a basic level of broadband and that we don't leave anybody out."

Campbell defends the agreement to let FairPoint determine where to expand broadband using the money it owned in penalties. He says had the company simply paid the fines, the money couldn't have been used for that purpose, adding,

"It's very important to recognize that spending this 6.6 million dollars on broadband was not something the regulators could do without FairPoint's agreement."

Earlier this month, the state responded to complaints from residents in Vershire and nearby towns by agreeing to build a 36 mile long fiber optic trunk line that can be used to provide fiber broadband services to the area.

EC Fiber says the line is a valuable addition, but now that it doesn't have access to grant money, its going to be more difficult for them to expand expand into those towns as originally planned.

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