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VTel Turns Up LTE, Gigabit Networks

Jason Meyers

VTel has delivered a one-two broadband punch to rural Vermont, launching both a wireless broadband offering over LTE and completing the first leg of a fiber-to-the-home buildout.

Vermont Telephone Company Inc. (VTel) is the incumbent carrier in 14 towns in southern Vermont and also operates a 1400-mile long-haul fiber network across the state. VTel's wireless holdings extend beyond the company's ILEC territory, reaching about 20,000 rural homes and businesses across the state over both 700 MHz and AWS spectrum, says Diane Guité, vice president of business development for VTel.

On the mobile network side, the company is using its spectrum cache and a partnership with Sprint to offer broadband wireless over its LTE network, operating under the assumption that residents in rural Vermont are starved for high-speed connectivity more than anything.

Service over the VTel Wireless LTE network is provided through an indoor router, or via a SIM card in a customer's existing smartphone or tablet or an unlocked (and not subsidized) device that customers can purchase from VTel. Pricing ranges from $10 for 1 GB of data usage to $90 per month for 50 GB. Download speeds vary, but the network theoretically can achieve download speeds of 100 Mbit/s, Guité says.

"It's really a wide range of speeds considering that there are so many factors involved -- how close customers live to a tower, and how many people are on the network at once," she says.

VTel Wireless is one of the rural operators that signed on as LTE partners with Sprint earlier this year to help extend broadband access to rural America, and Guité says Sprint has shared its technology deployment and pricing formats and provided the rural operator with access to LTE devices. (See Sprint Adds First 12 LTE Rural Roaming Partners.)

"Sprint has put down a blueprint for how to do that deployment that it's offering to rural partners," says Gabriel Brown, senior analyst for Heavy Reading, adding that the LTE connections will be a vast improvement for customers in VTel's territory that previously had no broadband access at all. "If you're going from dial-up to LTE, even with modest performance it's going to be like night and day."

VTel plans to add a voice offering to its LTE network, but is waiting for more device availability, Guité says.

"We are ready to rock with VoLTE -- the problem we're having is that we can't get devices," she says. "Nobody is selling us handsets -- nobody has them available."

VTel has also completed about one quarter of its planned FTTH network, reaching 4,000 of a planned 16,000 potential customers, Guité says. The service, called GigE Active Fiber, will make triple-play services and connections of up to 1 Gbit/s available within the carrier's ILEC territory. VTel is offering TV services but would prefer not to, echoing a sentiment that other entities deploying gigabit networks have voiced. (See Colorado Gigabit Network Shuns Video, Embraces OTT.)

"We'll sell TV because everyone seems to want it, but we hate being in the TV business because of the crazy costs," Guité says. "We tell customers they can buy it if they want, but we're encouraging them to just do broadband and we'll show them how to set up a Roku or something like that."

Both the LTE and FTTH deployments are results of $160 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for which VTel was the largest single recipient to date, Guité says. About 70 percent of the funding -- which was a combination of Rural Utilities Service and National Telecommunications Information Administration grants, federal loans and VTel matching investments -- was designated for the fiber build, and the remaining 30 percent was to fund the statewide LTE network, she says.

— Jason Meyers, Utility Communications Editor, Light Reading

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