A New Queen City Resident Weighs Her Internet Options

| March 19, 2014
JOHN CARVAJAL
  • John Carvajal

Apartment hunting is hell in Burlington, I've heard. But for me it was mercifully easy: A few weeks into my search, a coworker tipped me off about an affordable condo with an expansive view of the lake. Choosing an internet service provider turned out to be the tortuous part.

Before I go on, let me get this off my chest: I didn't choose Burlington Telecom (BT). I stuck with out-of-state-based FairPoint Communications for the same reason I don't buy fair-trade chocolate: I'm 26, and I feel entitled to be cheap.

I could have stomached BT's $65 installation fee, but the idea of paying $5 every month for a modem irked me. Keep it for five years, and that's $300 — for a plastic box.

I do feel guilty for turning the cold shoulder to the little local company. BT, on top of having to compete for customers with the telecom titans, must also contend with the aftereffects of its troubled past. It was revenue starved and on the brink of financial collapse when the Bob Kiss administration improperly diverted nearly $17 million of taxpayer money to keep it afloat. Citibank subsequently sued the city for failing to repay $33.5 million in loans used to build the network.

The recent settlement between the City of Burlington and Citibank removes the threat that the latter will uproot the entire fiber-optic network, but BT's future remains uncertain. Mayor Miro Weinberger has said the city intends to sell the company, but who knows who will buy it? And it remains to be seen whether a local company can survive in a monopoly-prone industry where Comcast is king.

I began my search by polling friends and coworkers about their provider preferences. Other than a few people who recommended BT "because it's local," no one seemed to have strong feelings.

Googling "best internet provider in Burlington" wasn't much help. The top search result was a University of Vermont student guide that listed several other companies, including Sovernet Communications and Green Mountain Access — but it was seven years old. How could I trust a site that directed students to a Wikipedia article on dial-up access?

After the fact, I made a phone call to Vermont's public service department and learned that there are 36 broadband providers in the state, six of which service my address in Burlington. In addition to BT, FairPoint and Comcast, I apparently could have chosen from Sovernet, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless. Broadbandvt.org, a website developed by the state, the University of Vermont and several other entities, gives consumers a list of providers based on the census area where they live. But a month ago, I was letting word of mouth guide me, and I assumed there were only three.

I knew Comcast hadn't fallen by the wayside, so I started there. I've heard stories about Comcast papering neighborhoods with fliers and going door to door to lure customers away from BT. But for a company that so aggressively peddles its wares, it offered an infuriatingly opaque website.

I wanted fast internet — no cable, no phone — at the cheapest price possible, but comparing rates online proved impossible. That's because neither Comcast nor FairPoint publishes prices on its website. And both have coverage maps too simplistic to be of much use. Here they are, gatekeepers to the internet — a creation premised on the open exchange of information — and they both have content-free websites.

Instead, for information about rates, Comcast directed me to its online chat room, where an "analyst" named Nongthombam immediately tried to sign me up for an $80-per-month package. He had a weaselly role to play, but Nongthombam himself was exceedingly pleasant. He was reasonable, too, when I pointed out how deceptive Comcast's pricing structure was — the only affordable deals get twice as expensive one year in.

Our exchange went like this:

Me: Thanks for your help. I'm not interested at this time because currently I pay $38.99 for seven megabytes per second with FairPoint, which seems to me like a better deal.

Nongthombam: I understand you; however, I am offering you the performance packages at $29.99 a month for the first 12 months with 25 megabytes.

Me: I know, and I appreciate that, but then it leaps to $66.95!

Nongthombam: Yes, I see that.

I haven't chatted online with a stranger since middle school, and, as mundane as our conversation was, it evoked the same giddiness I felt then. But when it became clear I wasn't interested in what Nongthombam was selling, he exited the chat room promptly, leaving me staring at the sentence I'd started typing ("Where do you live?") and feeling pathetic.

To its credit, BT does publish its rates online. It even lists all the additional charges you might have to pay, although I still had to call to ask what the "Snowbird" fee is. (It's a $15-a-month charge that people who leave Burlington during the winter pay, instead of terminating their service and then paying another installation fee when they sign up again.)

BT's cheapest deal is $39 per month, which lets you download and upload at a speed of five mbps. Because the company uses a fiber-optic network, that speed is guaranteed. Other high-speed services are more fickle: FairPoint uses DSL, and the speed depends on how far you are from the provider's central office. Comcast uses its cable connection, which can get bogged down when too many people are signed on.

At my old apartment in Montpelier, FairPoint charged me $38.99 a month for a download speed of "up to seven" megabytes per second. The upload speed was a paltry 768 kilobytes per second, but I never had a problem with it. When I called, a FairPoint rep said the company would transfer my service without any additional charges — no installation fee, no monthly modem fee.

It seemed liked the simplest route at the time.

The sunsets over Lake Champlain are stunning from my new apartment; I watched my first one while on the phone with a FairPoint customer-service rep, turning my modem on and off, glancing back and forth between the blinking green light — a bad sign — and the receding sun.

No luck. But the next day, I got the call I had been waiting for: Dan, a FairPoint technician, was on his way to help. Except he had instructions to help "Marla on College Street." I 'fessed up to not being Marla and tried to sweet-talk him into coming to my condo instead. Dan declined — policy prohibited it — but he was perplexed by the mix-up and said he'd get to the bottom of it.

True to his word, Dan called back a few hours later. Marla, it turned out, was vacationing in California and probably couldn't care less whether her internet was working. Dan had unearthed my ticket from the office basement (don't ask; I didn't), but he would still have to go through the central office to get permission to help me.

A day later, Dan showed up and fixed the phone line — for now. I'm fuzzy on the particulars, but the line's days are apparently numbered. I had to wade through FairPoint's Terms of Service agreement to determine that I'm on the hook if it stops working.

Had I opted for BT, cutting-edge, hair-thin cable made of pure glass would have delivered internet to my door. As nice as Dan was, I wouldn't have had to wait for someone in North Carolina to authorize his visit.

Stinginess steered me away from BT, though, and now I'm locked into another contract with FairPoint, entrusting my internet connection to a frayed telephone line. When the contract expires next March, I'll be one year older — perhaps a little less miserly and ready, at last, to go local.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Connections"

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Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

let's avoid falling into the stereotypical liberal guilt rabbit hole. i don't use burlington telecom services out of guilt, rather, they offer a superior product at a competitive price. yes ethics plays a part, but first and foremost, i want the best possible isp for my hard earned dollar. as many of us identify, especially prion, the fiber optic network installed in this fine city is far, far superior to anything the competition can even think about offering. so what's missing here is both an educated consumer and a decent marketing effort from burlington telecom to inform the public of their excellent service.

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Posted by lava on 03/22/2014 at 1:07 AM

NateOrshan:

I totally agree with everything you said, and I agree I was very passionate and probably out of bounds for what should be acceptable in this great and open forum.

The truth is, I am very passionate about the good work BT has done for the community. Even though there has been some problems with them paying off their debts, we all agree that BT is singlehandedly one of the best things that has happened to Burlington in the last 10 years.

My biggest gripe with Ms. Freese was just the utter lack socio-political implications of her giving her hard earned cash to the corporate machine. It almost feels in someways that her article was an attack on the fellow Burlington folk that provide this excellent service to us with little consideration to the fact that her 39 or 60 dollars a month would be ensuring that someone, in her town could have another meal to eat, taxes that pay for our wonderful city services like snow plows, etc... and felt that it was just too shallow of a reason to turn her back on our neighbors.

Call me old fashioned, but I really try to be as out spoken as possible when it comes to BT - the fact that they laid fiber all through the city is helping secure Burlington as a technological center where innovation is possible.

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Posted by Mike Ferlandium-FourtySeven on 03/21/2014 at 6:56 PM

26 yo, employed in electronic information dissemination, investigative reporter, yet
• guided by word-of-mouth in choosing an IPS (so didn't even know her choices)
• tried to engage a salesperson in personal banter during a sales chat (seriously?! you realize he's at work, don't you? and being monitored?)
• can't seem to figure out differences in upload/download speeds (for instance thinking 7 Mb means 7 megabytes/sec. downstream rate; it's actually a maximum achievable ~ 0.834 megabytes/sec. or ~ 854 kilobytes/sec. – not much different from the "paltry" claimed 768 kilobytes/sec. upstream transfer rate, except she also got that wrong.)
• can't seem to figure out the difference between contract service and non-contract service, so is paying (it's not stated, but probably) $39/month for nominal 7Mb/0.768Mb (over copper) with a 1 year contract, thinking it's cheaper than $39/month for actual 5Mb/5Mb (over glass) *with no contract*. (The slowest BT service available with an annual contract is 25Mb symmetric for $49/month, which is a literal laser light year > ADSL.)
• doesn't understand digital transmission. BT transmits digitally, so it not only doesn't charge for modems, it doesn't use modems. (Or splitters, or RF shielding devices, because it doesn't send electric pulses over metal, it sends light pulses over fiber.) It rents wireless routers to people who want wireless routers but don't want to own wireless routers. A wireless router is an unnecessary luxury.
• equates installation with connection. (Reconnection fee = $25. Initial installation fee = $65. See a difference?)
Which carrier she chose isn't interesting, much less news. Characterizing the process as difficult and confusing when she put no thought or effort into it is less news. Publicly proclaiming personal cluelesslness isn't reporting.

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Posted by prion on 03/21/2014 at 5:21 PM

The sheer number of inaccuracies and glaring omissions throughout this article can only stipulate that, either: this article is intended as a hit-piece for Burlington Telecom, or the author is in fact astonishingly naive. For instance, why selectively delve into the admittedly dicey background of Burlington Telecom, but not Fairpoint or Comcast, which clearly carry even more baggage than Burlington Telecom could ever imagine: recall Fairpoint's bankruptcy and the scandals surrounding them, or the aggressive federal lobbying and the callous disregard for net-neutrality that Comcast is currently at war with? To distill the issues within this article: the author accurately states Burlington Telecom is fiberoptic, yet uses an imaginative modem fee as her primary justification for selecting another service provider. I'm surprised Seven Days published this. Perhaps, in reflection, by the end of this article, one can fault Burlington Telecom and their lack of marketing and outreach efforts to better educate and explain their services to the community at large.

Full disclosure: as a satisfied Burlington Telecom customer, since the early beta stage, I have no issue with the authors choice to go with Fairpoint, rather, it's the inept reporting and underdeveloped opinion that's hard to disregard for a Seven Days publication. I expect this degree of reporting and opinion from a Garnett publication, not Seven Days. Anyway, nice illustration John, and I still love you Seven Days. :)

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Posted by lava on 03/21/2014 at 2:53 PM

When I moved to Burlington from Montpelier, picking my ISP was a piece of cake. Two of the three options were available in Montpelier, FairPoint and Comcast. Comcast is the worst ISP ever. I had them once and will never, ever go back. They are serially dishonest in their practices and claims. Because of that I used FairPoint. They were bad, but not Comcast bad. I had the same sort of scheduling issues with FP that everyone has. They are not there when they claim they will be and the service was slower than it should have been, with occasional outages.

Moving to the Queen City and have Burlington Telecom as my ISP was a game changer. They are FAR AND AWAY the best ISP I've ever dealt with. They provide the fastest guaranteed service (unlike FairPoint), with no throttling or data caps (unlike Comcast). I have a 25mb connection for $50/mo. Since I don't have cable tv or other entertainment costs, it's well worth the monthly access charge. Superfast, HD Netflix, HBO Go, iTunes and Amazon. Not one single outage or service difficulty. They may cost a slight bit more, and the there may be an instal fee. Whatever fees and costs are associated with getting up and running with BT are well worth it as their service is the best in town and it's not even close.

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Posted by raincntry on 03/21/2014 at 2:07 PM

Mike Ferlandium-FourtySeven, of course I agree with your dim view of Fairpoint, Verizon, and the rest of the communications behemoths that are, absent net neutrality, currently poised to shake us all down like corporate extortionists. I also get that you took Ms. Freese's decision to continue with Fairpoint as a personal affront.

I'm inviting you to re-read what you wrote and consider whether a person's choice of ISP merits being called "an utterly disgraceful example of humanity". I would feel pretty shocked and hurt to be told I was essentially worthless. And I'm betting you would, too.

Also think about how, in our small city, you stand a good chance of actually bumping into Ms. Freese at some point. Would you say the same hurtful things to her in person? I'm betting you wouldn't.

I love that you're passionate about net neutrality. More people need to be. But consider whether you're doing the cause any favors when, in an attempt to educate someone about making a wiser choice, you attack them personally in a public forum. It doesn't tell us that you've made a good, well-reasoned argument. It only tells us that you're seething with anger. In our wonderful little community, do you really want to be known only as a hostile dude?

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Posted by NateOrshan on 03/21/2014 at 1:18 AM

As an IT guy i am disgusted with this article and the author's premise.

Fairpoint has a history of screwing their customers - let's talk about the great Verizon - Fairpoint acquisition that left a boat load of customers calling my shop demanding me to fix their email that didn't work after the transition. Not only did I lose weeks of profitable labor, but my phones were ringing off the hook and I was unable to work on anything because of this email issue. To this day when I see email addresses with the @myfairpoint.net I shudder, knowing all too well that the customer in question was a brave soul that endured that switch over. Not only has this happened, but you should check out their VOIP offerings, and other "business" class service that they try to sling - it's all just crappy service, out-sourced support and brought to you by a corporate machine that sees you as profit and not a person.

But here is the real thing that irks me:

You don't buy fairtrade chocolate, that's cool, but what YOU are doing is turning down execellent speed and service because of your projections. You could just purchase the router from them outright, or buy one cheaply on the internet. But nooooo, you had to take the easy way out, because you only use facebook and abuse the bountiful bits that churn through your DSL so you can watch Netflix and catch up on the latest gossip girl. So instead of contributing to progress, and paying for real service from someone that lives in your neighborhood you decided to sell out to a company that will give you cheap crappy service and tech support that is outsourced to one of them countries out east. THANK YOU for being selfish, ignorant and being an utterly disgraceful example of humanity. THANK YOU for putting money in the coffers of the corporate machine, and THANK YOU for helping fund a corporate machine that is hell bent on destroying net neutrality. If you do not know what net neutrality is than you have NO business writing for this very socially just paper - as you are helping oppress millions of people and most important millions of bits and bytes that need a home.

There is an old saying "penny wise, pound foolish" take a minute to let that sink in.

Thank you and have a nice day.

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Posted by Mike Ferlandium-FourtySeven on 03/20/2014 at 9:16 PM

This kind of makes me sick to my stomach. Money must not be an issue if you can find such a condo so easily. Apartment rates in Burlington are ridiculous and most people struggle to not only put a roof over their heads but to keep that roof in place. How immature and cavalier of you Seven Days to allow an article with an opening like that to grace your paper.

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Posted by Jessa Gambrel on 03/20/2014 at 11:25 AM

Cheers for the honest and open essay. I'm sorry to hear that Burlington Telecom wasn't the best deal. My wife and I have been customers for years, and we've had a very satisfying experience with their Internet service (we're on the $39/mo plan). Even their tech support's been great, e.g., one time our BT router stopped, and the person we contacted was able to talk us through testing it to determine the issue (needed a new box, alas, but we figured out the issue right away with their help).

Anyway, consider this a BT plug from a happy customer.

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Posted by NateOrshan on 03/19/2014 at 9:33 PM

Pretty sure BT does not use modems.

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Posted by Brad dorphmann on 03/19/2014 at 1:36 PM
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