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Feds’ queries about Vt. broadband go back years

Wireless antennas on a silo in South Hero. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
Wireless antennas on a silo in South Hero. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

By Erin Mansfield

For Vermont Digger

Federal watchdogs have been raising questions about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s broadband funding programs for four years, including programs that awarded more than $100 million to the Vermont Telephone Co.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has released three reports since 2012 questioning the oversight at the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, which awards grants and loans to companies that say it is too expensive to build in rural areas without a subsidy.

Two of the reports focus on shortcomings in the Broadband Infrastructure Program, the source of a $116 million award for VTel’s Wireless Open World project. One of those two raises additional questions about another federal program that awarded VTel $12.3 million to install fiber-optic cable in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire.

A recent VTDigger investigation found there is no evidence, based on public documents, to show that everyone in Essex County in the Northeast Kingdom has access to broadband, even though the Rural Utilities Service shelled out $116 million to connect the area.

Additionally, the investigation showed that residents of southern Vermont complain that VTel service through the Wireless Open World project is “spotty,” even though the Rural Utilities Service says VTel has lived up to its promise to build wireless Internet towers to serve rural areas of the state.

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