fightingCould ongoing controversy in Vermont involving network operator VTEL be a precursor of controversies to come involving broadband funding for unserved areas?

Local media outlet VTDigger reports that the state of Vermont will allow network operators to collect public funding to deploy broadband to areas where VTEL apparently provides at least some coverage using wireless technology. At issue is how extensively VTEL covers several Vermont communities where the company received federal broadband stimulus dollars to deploy broadband using wireless. Those communities were part of a bigger project that included building out fiber-to-the-premises in some communities. (VTEL is the incumbent carrier in parts of rural Vermont. The stimulus project included areas inside and outside its home turf.)

According to VTDigger, VTEL has not provided state authorities with a list of addresses in wireless areas that can actually receive service, but there have been so many complaints about VTEL service not reaching some locations that the state made the decision to fund overbuilds of some VTEL wireless serving areas.  (Vermont’s budget for broadband deployments is $556,273 for this year, VTDigger reports.)

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All of this raises some interesting questions.

With wireless, it’s not so easy to tell which locations are covered without individually visiting every location, surveying the terrain, testing signal strength, etc. And while repeaters or other methods of extending infrastructure may be quite a common solution for coverage problems for fixed wireless networks, VTEL apparently from the beginning described its wireless network as a mobile one. And repeaters or tailored solutions for individual homes aren’t so commonplace in mobile networks.

Were they part of the VTEL business case or, if not, should they have been? Normally a repeater required to serve a specific location wouldn’t be put in until a customer order services, which could be years after the public funding source runs out. How should one figure that into the business plan?

These are questions that are likely to come up again as the telecom industry gets serious about trying to bring broadband to all Americans, spurred by the carrot-and-stick approach outlined in the broadband Connect America Fund (CAF) program – particularly considering that network operators will be allowed to use wireless options for their deployments (as long as those options meet minimum performance parameters).

Overbuilding VTEL?
VTEL did not respond to an inquiry from Telecompetitor asking about these issues.

According to VTDigger, the Rural Utilities Service considers VTEL’s stimulus project to have been properly completed. But according to the VTDigger report, locals say there are many areas within the project territory that lack coverage—and since VTEL hasn’t revealed where those locations are, the state is now willing to fund projects throughout parts of VTEL’s stimulus project area.

Potentially this could include overbuilding broadband to locations where service (wireless service, at least) is already available from VTEL. Normally overbuilding is a no-no when it comes to publicly funded projects but it’s unlikely to stop the state of Vermont, as the state is acting independently from the federal government, which funded the VTEL buildout.

It’s important to note, though, that building fixed broadband in an area that already has some mobile broadband service isn’t normally considered an overbuild as the two types of service generally aren’t considered to be direct replacements for each other.

The Upshot
So what are the takeaways from VTEL’s experiences? It sounds like there were some overblown expectations at play – something service providers need to manage as they deploy various broadband options, particularly when public funding is involved.

It’s also worth noting that while the federal broadband stimulus program funded mobile and fixed broadband, the FCC plans to put mobile broadband into a separate fund for the CAF program. And VTEL’s experiences suggest that in crafting CAF program parameters, the FCC should take a close look at the different requirements that may be needed for the two different types of wireless deployments.

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