VTel CEO Defends Federally Funded Wireless Project

Mar 29, 2019

Vermont Telephone Company CEO Michel Guite is defending his federally funded wireless broadband project, and says it serves hundreds of  thousands of addresses in Vermont. But the state says areas that were supposed to be reached by the VTel signal remain unserved.

VPR reached out to VTel for a story about how the federally funded VTel project failed to deliver on VTel’s promise to cover  “virtually 100 percent of Vermont’s unserved population.”

More from VPR — Built With Federal Funding, VTel's Broadband Wireless Service Failed To Fully Deliver [March 25]

CEO Guite did not respond to the interview requests made through the company's lawyer, but he did post comments on the story on VPR.org. He made several claims, including: “We can and do reach hundreds of thousands of homes, but there are thousands we do not reach.”

Guite also said his application for some $35 million in federal low interest loans is “entirely public” and that it details tower location and signal strength.

"We have heard anecdotally from people who tried to sign up for the coverage and were told they were not eligible for the service for lack of coverage. So there are certainly some folks out there who are within the service territory but still can't get coverage." - Clay Purvis, state telecommunications director

But state auditor Doug Hoffer said in an interview that he tried to examine the VTel application and found much of the key information was kept secret.

"It was an almost 900-page document and 600 or 700 of those pages were redacted, which is troubling,” Hoffer said.

According to Hoffer, the Rural Utilities Service, which provided the funds, did not do rigorous oversight of the VTel project to determine whether it worked as promised.

“Which makes it particularly challenging, because the executive of that company keeps claiming things that can’t be verified,” he said.

But the state did try to verify where in Vermont the VTel wireless signal reaches. A telecommunications specialist spent weeks driving around Vermont last fall testing wireless coverage on about 6,000 miles of road.

More from VPR — State Official Went Roaming Around Vermont To Test Cell Coverage Claims [Jan. 16]

The results show that there are many areas within the territory served by the VTel project that have no service at all, at least on the roads.

“Our drive test is not a ‘gotcha’ for their service, but it is a data point that suggests that certainly there are areas within the [federally funded] service territory that could benefit from additional deployment,” said Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Department of Public Service.   

Purvis said the road test did not match exactly the conditions under which VTel delivers its wireless broadband. A VTel wireless broadband customer would get the service in a fixed location, not a car, Purvis said. And they often use an outdoor receiver mounted high on their building, which would improve the signal.

“With that said we have heard anecdotally from people who tried to sign up for the coverage and were told they were not eligible for the service for lack of coverage,” he said. “So there are certainly some folks out there who are within the service territory but still can’t get coverage.”

Purvis said the Rural Utilities Service conducted its own test using a bucket truck to check VTel’s signal in many locations around the state. The RUS signed off on the project.

"Every town, every community, every census block will be getting service. But there will be examples of people who are unreachable, that's the nature of wireless." - VTel CEO Michel Guite

In an email to VPR Friday, Guite said he had promised publicly at a 2010 meeting hosted by Sen. Bernie Sanders that the VTel signal would reach the state’s unserved areas with a broadband signal.

“I reemphasized, every town, every community, every census block will be getting service,” Guite said he told Sanders. “But there will be examples of people who are unreachable, that’s the nature of wireless.”