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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Bethel, Vt.) - Inside a converted dairy barn in Bethel, Vt., GW Plastics is a modern operation.
The company, which said it employs approximately 350 people between two Vermont locations, makes very precise, custom-molded plastic parts for medical devices and cars. But the company says its customers around the country sometimes wonder if Vermonters are stuck in the dark ages, because cell phone service in this part of Bethel is next to nothing.
Voicemails often don't show up, said Tim Reis, the company's vice president for health care business development.
"It's very frustrating," he sighed. "It's frustrating to the customers and I'm frankly getting sick and tired of getting yelled at for not responding."
The Vt. Telecommunications Authority said Wednesday that one study shows 12 percent of homes, businesses, schools, and churches in Vermont are not covered by cell service. The number of uncovered sites may seem higher, Vt. Telecommunications Authority director Chris Campbell explained, because "dropped calls" increase while driving through rural areas of the state.
More phones in Bethel and surrounding communities should ring by the end of the year, thanks to a new cell tower. A quarter-million dollars in taxpayer money will put up the 120-foot tower, and AT&T has already signed a deal to rent space on it to deliver mobile voice and internet. More cell providers could join AT&T on the site, Campbell said.
"Vermont is geographically challenged when it comes to cell service," added Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt. "Lots of valleys and mountains; it's one of the hardest areas in the nation to get universal cell service. However, we're making huge progress."
When it comes to high-speed internet access for homes, Vermont is scrambling to increase connectivity. It's estimated 18,000 addresses still use dial-up or other slow methods to get online. The state has pledged that by the end of 2013, everyone will be in the fast lane.
“I’ve said it before,” Gov. Shumlin chuckled. “Good thing there are 12 months in 2013,” describing the long road ahead for the project.
Just last week, 800 more homes in Lamoille County got broadband service. WPTZ-TV reported that $800,000 in state grants plus private investments from Fairpoint Communications meant ecstatic townspeople.
"I think it's marvelous," said Pat DeLang, a volunteer at the Varnum Memorial Library in Jeffersonville. "I think it's been a long time coming."
Gov. Shumlin and Chris Campbell called the pledge for universal high-speed internet critical to economic development and quality of life in Vermont. Shumlin noted that while there is no pledge for universal cell coverage in Vermont, the state is seeing more and more service. Shumlin said that is thanks to investments from carriers, citing AT&T's multi-million-dollar investments in new towers and tower upgrades in the past two years.
GW Plastics predicted the new cell tower in Bethel will help the company stay competitive and innovative.
"The 21st century comes to Bethel, Vermont," Tim Reis beamed. "It's going to be wonderful!"