VTel’s LTE build-out plays starring role in FCC’s net neutrality debate

VTel operates a wireless network in Vermont. (Wikipedia/Jonathanking)

The chairman of the FCC testified before Congress on Thursday and pointed to a rural wireless network operator in Vermont that he said has benefited from his agency’s abandonment of net neutrality guidelines.

“It has now been 67 days since the repeal of the previous administration’s utility-style internet regulations took effect. Far from ending or being delivered one word at a time, the internet remains open and free,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “The overall positive impact of our regulatory modernization efforts was brought home recently by VTel, a small Internet service provider based in Springfield, Vermont.”

Pai pointed to a letter VTel wrote to Congress in May in which it said that it can “assure that regulating broadband like legacy telephone service would not create any incentives for VTel to invest in its broadband network. In fact, it would have precisely the opposite effect.”

Concurrently, with the letter, VTel announced a $4 million deal with Ericsson to upgrade its LTE core to enable voice roaming and Wi-Fi calling in Vermont and to “start our transition to 5G.”

Importantly, VTel is also applying for around $330,000 from the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase I to pay for the build-out of LTE in its 700 MHz C Block in 5 x 5 MHz channels in other locations in Vermont.

Pai’s selection of VTel as a support to his net neutrality argument is likely carefully geared toward addressing concerns on the topic, particularly given VTel’s efforts to deploy internet services to rural locations. Legislators for years have been discussing the “digital divide” between Americans who have access to telecommunications services and those in rural areas who don’t.

In his testimony, and in responses to question from senators on the topic, Pai argued that the FCC’s move to retire its net neutrality guidelines hasn’t affected the internet. He said that widespread “hysterical predictions of doom” haven’t come true.

However, in discussion on the topic, a number of senators pointed out that it’s still early days, and that operators may still create “slow” and “fast” lanes on the internet and potentially block competing services and sites, because they now legally have the ability to do so.

And FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who has actively argued against many of the Republican-led agency’s actions, argued that eventually internet service providers will step into the legal gap created by the removal of the FCC’s net neutrality guidelines.

“It will happen,” Rosenworcel said, arguing that eventually ISPs will find the technological and business reasons to impinge on net neutrality principles since they no longer face legislation preventing them from doing so. “It’s not good.”

Rosenworcel also pointed out that three states have already passed their own net neutrality laws, which is likely forcing ISPs to hold off on any actions on the topic until a time when it might not be noticed.