“Mobile’s hard,” said Clay Purvis, director of the Vermont state government’s telecommunications and connectivity division, as he opened his presentation Monday night in Stowe about cellphone coverage.
And it’s true. In rural, mountainous Vermont, it’s hard to get coverage in every corner of the state.
You can hear regular grumbles about dropped calls, slow intenet speeds and spotty wireless coverage in and around Stowe.
More coverage means more cell sites and, as the North Hill tower debate in 2016 shows, people who don’t want towers will fight hard against them.
Broadband infrastructure — wires on poles and in underground conduits — is easier on the eyes, but digging those pipes and hanging those wires can cost telecom companies more than they’d make for setting up a few homes.
State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, hosted a forum with Purvis and his colleague Rob Fish about cellphone and internet services in Stowe: what shape the town’s in now and where it’s going.
Of the 22 people at the forum, held at the Akeley Memorial Building, eight represented various telecom companies, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Consolidated Communications and Stowe Access.
More towers and wider coverage are on the horizon, they said, but improvements to existing service are a sure thing for the coming years.
Bytes, bars and towers
Owen Smith Jr., representing AT&T, said the focus in Stowe is on capacity, in hopes of mitigating the cell issues Stowe residents have during peak tourism periods.
During a busy weekend last winter, so many tourists were in town that the cellphone system became unusable — parents and kids couldn’t connect at Stowe Mountain Resort, the Mountain Shuttle bus schedule became invisible because it operates on cellphones, and the disconnects caused a great deal of consternation.
The next big improvement, the experts said, will be an outdoor distributed antenna system, or oDAS, at Stowe Mountain Resort’s base lodge, built by American Tower Corp.
What’s an oDAS? A large antenna tethered to many smaller ones, the former on the roof and the latter dispersed outside and throughout the lodge.
AT&T and other carriers will likely use that equipment to serve their customers in the most densely populated area of Stowe during peak ski season. It’s the tourists standing in lines and sitting in the lodge that sap the village’s bandwidth, and this project should help mitigate that.
This plan isn’t new, but has really moved forward since Vail Resorts bought the ski area, Smith said.
“If the mountain is full of skiers using phones, that will affect service here,” Smith said. Extra capacity there will ease pressures in town.
AT&T will upgrade its gear on Mount Mansfield by the end of the month, and will improve capacity while it installs FirstNet equipment, a public safety system it’s building for the federal government throughout the state, he said.
“That’s the big issue,” Smith said.
But some people in the audience disagreed.
One man said he lives 2 miles from Stowe village, but can send texts or make calls only with Verizon.
Another said busy periods like Martin Luther King weekend are to be expected; his problems are with day-to-day coverage. He asked Smith what AT&T will do to keep these people as customers.
“I don’t pretend to know Stowe,” Smith said, but cited the FirstNet as an important bridge to filling coverage. “You’re going to see big, big changes in the next couple years.”
Representatives from T-Mobile — which merged with Sprint in October — and Verizon also spoke, making similar points.
Stephanie Lee, representing Verizon, said the company’s local staff works on coverage, and it shows. Verizon has the most exhaustive coverage of Stowe, with AT&T close behind and T-Mobile in third.
The three companies said they’re working toward 5G services in Vermont.
Rob Fish, in his second week working for the state as a rural broadband specialist, jumped in and asked a key question:
“Which of these will happen first: 5G or wider coverage of these areas?”
While that question wasn’t answered directly, it spurred a conversation about when, and how, acceptable coverage will come to areas will no cell service.
“There are some rural areas that are going to be harder to reach,” Lee said. “They both have to happen.”
“Macro sites make the most sense for rural areas,” Purvis said — more cell sites with tall towers.
The key there is public cooperation, and Scheuermann asked the group to brainstorm how communities could help.
Smith cited certificates of public good, issued by the Vermont Public Utility Commission, as the most helpful streamlining factor for companies to build large cell sites.
“It’s a 60- to 90-day process, it’s extremely helpful, and it’s due to sunset in July,” he said. “We want to see it made permanent.”
Without that state-level process, companies have a hard time getting local approvals to break ground on new towers.
“It takes years to get a single site approved; that takes thousands and thousands and thousands of legal dollars,” he said.
This doesn’t mean the state process cuts out locals’ say in the matter. The failed effort to put a cellphone tower on North Hill, along the Waterbury-Stowe town line, is an example of that. Verizon’s project ran into legal turbulence in 2015 and was rejected in September 2016.
The Stowe and Waterbury town governments initially objected on an aesthetic basis, but soon the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources joined the fight, arguing the forest on North Hill contains the Shutesville Hill wildlife corridor, which allows bears, moose and deer to traverse the wilderness area that flanks Route 100. Disrupting that corridor could harm those species, the agency said.
Joe Mclean, the lawyer representing both towns, said that was the first time a certificate for public good was denied by the commision.
“The entire region is an animal corridor, just to let you know,” Scheuermann said, and “We wouldn’t be able to do much of anything if that was the problem.”
“I’d like us all to think about this and consider this,” Scheuermann said, “and maybe see what we can do together as a community.”
Pulling the Line
“The Vermont state goal by 2024 is for every location, every 911 location on the map, to have a minimum of 100 (download speed) 100 (upload speed),” Fish said, “we have a long way to go.”
He said only 32 addresses in Stowe — 1 percent — are classified as unserved, which is under speeds 4 down and 1 up.
A member of the audience drew laughs when he said he’d never been part of the 1 percent before now.
He said his service, provided by Consolidated Communications, has never hit the advertised 4 down and 1 up in the two years he’s used it.
Another 1-percenter, who lives on West Hill Road, said his child can’t do homework on his school-provided Chromebook because the internet access is inadequate, and a woman sitting in the back row said the DSL service available to her home in Stowe Hollow isn’t good enough to run her small business.
Jeff Austin, representing Consolidated Communications, said the company is aware of the issues and is working to fix them. He cited faulty copper lines and a utility pole dispute between the Stowe and Morrisville electric departments as problems Consolidated Communications is working to fix. For the customer receiving lower than expected speeds, he said people often test their speeds improperly.
Austin said a stipulation of the company acquiring FairPoint was to provide internet access to the entirety of Stowe.
“Anybody in the entire Stowe footprint can get internet,” Austin said.
As for broadband-level internet speeds, he showed reluctance to expand in the Stowe area, citing low market shares after expanding faster coverage options.
“People in Vermont will only pay for what they need,” he said.
This is where Stowe Access came in, a leader in high-speed access in Stowe.
Rick Rothammer, president of Stowe Access, introduced himself as Santa Claus as he stood at the front of the room sporting a bushy white beard and a red flannel shirt.
The forum was running long and he asked the community to visit the office if he ran out of time to answer people’s questions.
“We’re a Stowe company, that’s where we started, that’s where we live, that’s who we are,” Rothammer said.
Many large telecom companies, like Comcast, use fiber to deliver high speeds to an area, and then use coaxial and traditional copper lines to deliver service to homes and businesses. While that provides high speeds, the fastest download and uploads come from fiber lines throughout.
“Everything we build right now is fiber,” Rothammer said. Stowe Access is phasing out its traditional lines and replacing them with fiber.
“We’re reinvesting everything we make and putting it back into the system,” he said.
The big hurdle is conduit. Laying underground pipes to house fiber lines is costly, and a difficult burden for a local company like Stowe Access to bear when it serves a few rural homes.
But if you build it, fiber will come. The Black Bear Run homeowners association paid $30,000 to build conduit, and Stowe Access installed the fiber, which costs about $9,000 a mile, Rothammer said.
Fish wrapped the forum up with the same sentiment: community effort. He said his role as the rural broadband specialist is to help rural communities meet the high bar the state set for 2024, and one way to do that is through broadband innovation grants.
To qualify, two towns or more would work together to show a project would be feasible in their area and can create a business plan for the project. If they can swing it, up to $60,000 is on the table.
“The challenge is, you need a core of highly motivated, high-energy people to make this happen,” Fish said. But it’s crucial, he said.
“It’s not just economic development; it’s the survival of small towns,” Fish said.