EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Marlene and Mike McCarty, real estate brokers who do much of their work at home less than four miles from the Vermont Statehouse, say they spend hundreds of dollars and hours each month on things they wouldn't have to if they had broadband Internet access.
Despite promises for years by state officials and phone and cable companies that they would have broadband by 2010, they're still waiting. Now Vermont is in the heat of a gubernatorial campaign, and the candidates are making a new round of promises about broadband and fixing Vermont's spotty cellular phone coverage.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Mike McCarty said.
Experts say Vermont's mountains and hills block wireless signals. Its sparse population of about 622,000 makes stringing cables to widely scattered rural homes and businesses too expensive to be profitable in many areas. The upshot is that Vermont has struggled to keep up with the information age.
"In most rural areas, you have a very challenging business proposition for broadband," said Christopher Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. That state agency, created in 2007, is promoting Vermont's efforts to expand both broadband and cellular phone service statewide.
"That doesn't mean it can't be done," Campbell added. "It has been done. It's been done in Vermont. It's even possible that if we waited long enough, somebody would figure out how to do it all without any help. The problem is we can't afford to wait."
It's difficult to quantify exactly how much broadband and cell phone coverage there is in the state. On broadband, estimates range up to 90 percent.
A state map shows the McCartys and their neighbors have broadband – but they don't yet.
On cell service, Campbell said, coverage is affected by everything from distance from a tower to the strength of an individual user's battery, so it's hard to measure.
But help has been coming, Campbell and other officials say, and Vermont is making progress – just not fast enough for some.
The VTA and Internet service provider Sovernet Communications, based in Bellows Falls, announced this month that they would use a $33.4 million federal grant to build a 773-mile fiber-optic backbone extending from southeastern to northeastern Vermont.
The object is to build the so-called "middle mile" of broadband Internet service, allowing schools, state buildings and community centers to hook up to the main trunk and, it is hoped, allow private-sector providers to split off of it and deliver the service out along the dirt roads – the "last mile."
Even with a tight budget this year, the Legislature devoted $2.85 million to rural broadband in a bill to promote job growth and earmarked $4.5 million to it in a capital construction bill. The state will issue bonds to raise that money.
In May, the VTA announced a $200,000 grant to one of those smaller providers, Cloud Alliance, to provide wireless Internet service in Woodbury, Hardwick and Wolcott. Vermont's dominant cable provider, Comcast, and phone company, FairPoint Communications, both trumpet their expanding networks, but they're not getting everywhere.
FairPoint has been working to emerge from bankruptcy and already has won from state regulators a six-month extension on the end-of-2010 deadline that had been set for deploying broadband throughout its service territory.
The McCartys, who live up a long driveway off a dirt road but can see downtown Montpelier from their hillside, said they regularly get advertisements from FairPoint but can't yet get its service. Comcast offered to string cable to their house for $14,000, Mike McCarty said.
Comcast spokeswoman Laura Brubaker said that she could not comment on individual customers, but that stringing cable isn't cheap, and that the company needs to recover its costs.
"There are significant costs associated with extending cable to rural areas, but we are always looking to provide our services to more customers and work with customers to try to achieve that goal, while taking into account the costs of meeting those needs," Brubaker said in an e-mail.
As for the gubernatorial candidates, all agree Vermont needs to continue pushing on the broadband front, saying it's crucial to the state's economic development.
Democratic candidate Matt Dunne, whose day job is as a community relations executive with Internet giant Google, said he would call for revenue bonds – to be paid off with proceeds from the system – of up to $400 million to bring broadband on fiber-optic cables to every home and business in Vermont.
His fellow Democrat Sen. Doug Racine counters that fiber to every home and business may be overly ambitious, and that there are less expensive ways to make broadband ubiquitous or nearly so.
While several of the candidates likened broadband to something as basic as electricity, Mike McCarty likens it to indoor plumbing. The lack of it hurts their business in two ways, the McCartys said.
Marlene McCarty said she sometimes goes to her daughter's home in downtown Montpelier, which has broadband access, to take care of tasks like uploading pictures of a new house she's just listed to a real estate website. "It's just so much quicker" than dial-up or using her cellular phone as a modem, she said. The slower connection at her own home is a cost because in her business, "time is money."
Mike McCarty said some potential home buyers will fall in love with a rural homestead he's selling, only to balk when they learn it doesn't have broadband access. He said he thinks a lack of broadband should prompt the local officials who assess property values for tax purposes to lower those values.
Canada has a broadband penetration rate of 29.6 per hundred residents, versus a U.S. rate of 26.4, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. McCarty says he sees the difference when he travels across the border to Quebec farm country.
"Vermont could be the same way, but we keep missing the boat," McCarty said. "We could have a lot more jobs here."