Telecom companies seek to expand broadband in Addison County

ADDISON COUNTY — Over the next three years more than 400 Addison County homes, businesses and schools connected to the Internet via Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (WCVT) will enjoy increased Internet speeds as the company expands its fiber optic network.
In an effort to improve broadband access around its service area, WCVT nabbed $5,559,975 — $3.892 million worth of grants — from a second wave of federal economic stimulus funds to increase the Internet speed for it’s rural customers. The customers eyed for upgrade currently have Internet speed of under 4 megabits per second (Mbps) — that’s the combined speed of upload and download.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband Internet is defined as Internet with actual download speeds of at least 4 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 1 Mbps. After the fiber optic expansion is done, residential customers in particular regions of Bristol, Lincoln, South Starksboro, Panton and West Addison will have access to download speeds from 6 Mbps upwards of 50 Mbps, said Kurt Gruendling, WCVT vice president of marketing.
Gruendling says fiber optic cables are a big improvement compared with accessing the Internet over existing copper telephone wires.
“What’s great about fiber is you can go 22 miles and there’s no degradation versus the copper network, which is what we’re currently using in most places,” said Gruendling.
With copper the further the signal travels, the slower it travels. But with fiber optic cables, the speed of the Internet is never compromised due to the distance. So WCVT is moving away from copper. 
“What’s going to happen with any of these areas where we’re building is that we’ll build fiber right up to the home, business, whatever it is. We’re taking copper right out,” said Gruendling. “
WCVT currently has Mount Abraham Union High School, Dakin Farm and Basin Harbor Resort hooked up to fiber optics, and in the near future, the company is looking to bring the new business campus Bristol Works and Bristol Elementary School up to speed.
Fairpoint Communications — which serves Middlebury, Vergennes and many other towns in Addison County — did not apply for this second wave of stimulus funds, but the company has expanded its fiber optic reach nonetheless. According to Fairpoint spokeswoman Sabina Haskell, since December Fairpoint has added 1,000 miles of fiber optics across Vermont.
The Fairpoint system is different from WCVT’s. It uses a hybrid of copper and fiber optic cables. Where WCVT will run fiber optics right to the customer’s property, Haskell explained that Fairpoint uses fiber optics as its backbone and then at remote terminals will send the Internet signal to telephone wires that transmit information the last mile to the user.
“When Fairpoint came to Vermont in 2008, 66 percent of our customers had broadband access and with this latest commitment, it’s just hovering a little under 90 percent,” said Haskell.
Shoreham Telephone based in Shoreham also runs a hybrid system similar to Fairpoint’s. In the past year, Shoreham Telephone has brought numerous customers in Orwell, Cornwall, Shoreham, Sudbury and Whiting up to speed by installing more exchange stations and increasing the reach of fiber optic lines.
Shoreham Telephone President Don Arnold explained, “You want to get the distance (between stations and Internet users) down to two or three miles,” otherwise the speed of the Internet will be too slow.
“Rather than an expansion, I’d call it a fill in,” said Arnold about installing more exchange stations in regions that previously had poor Internet service.
Arnold, who is presently trying to figure out which direction to take Internet connectivity in rural Addison County, doesn’t think that removing copper telephone wires is the answer because people rely on their telephone during power outages. But, at the same time, an Internet signal doesn’t travel as quickly through copper.
The answer to this problem, he said, may be to run both fiber optics and copper telephone wires right up to the customer’s home or business.
For now, Arnold said that he’s happy with his company’s Internet performance and is working to provide broadband access to all customers.
“At this point, we’re just trying to get speeds up,” he said. “We’re finding with the hybrid system that it can run two Netflix movies, a Playstation and a Gamecube all at once without any lag. We have to ask, do people want any more than this?”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonincependent.com.

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