A lot has changed since 2010 when Springfield-based VTel was awarded $116 million in Rural Utilities Service grant and loan money, in part to help build a statewide wireless high speed broadband network called Wireless Open World.
Since then, major companies like Verizon and AT&T have improved their own networks for mobile and broadband service. Many Vermont addresses that were unserved or underserved five years ago now have access to broadband from cable and DSL providers.
But VTel President Michel Guite says there’s still a place in the market for his wireless network.
“We think we’re in a good position to compete because we’ve invested heavily in infrastructure which makes our underlying operating costs relatively low,” he says.
Guite says VTel’s wireless system will surpass DSL speeds below 10 megabits per second, but won’t match a good high-speed cable connection of 40 or 50 megabits.
Guite says the technology and pricing is better suited to broadband use than the systems the big wireless providers have in place.
“We’re really oriented to pumping large amounts of data over our network to individual users,” he says.
The system relies on a network of towers to cover nearly all of the state with wireless service. Guite says a handful of towers remain to be completed under the federal program, and the network will continue to expand.
He says the system already has subscribers, but VTel is waiting until the entire network is completed before advertising it.
The idea of a statewide wireless high speed broadband canopy was met with skepticism from some quarters when it was first announced.
Guite says he expects the system will cover 97 percent of Vermont, but in some areas it will fall short.
"It doesn’t go as far as expectations were some years ago. The signals simply don’t carry through foliage like people thought they might. The signals simply don’t go around buildings like we thought they might,” he says.
Under the requirements for USDA Rural Utilities Service program, which provided the federal funding, VTel’s network must be completed by September 30, 2015.
A spokesperson for the USDA says the agency expects the company will meet the deadline.
In some cases, there’s been local opposition to towers proposed by VTel. Currently the town of Calais is appealing to the Public Service Board to block a plan for a tower there.
At a public meeting in April residents raised concerns about the aesthetic and economic impact of the tower, and they argued that in the years since the VTel project started, other providers have expanded their networks to bring broadband to the once underserved town.
VTel’s federal funding also helped the company build out fiber-to-home service to the 15 towns in its primary service area.
Unbundled from phone service, the company is charging roughly $55 per month for 1-gigabit broadband speeds.
Last month, VTel announced the availability of 10-gigabit service for “those whose use of the Internet exceeds the common user.” The basic monthly price is $400.