Next steps for our rural broadband

How do things stand with our homestead’s broadband connection?

Short answer: not well, but we’re starting out with some first and next steps.

connection speed via Fast.com

connection speed via Fast.com

Longer answer: as readers have noticed, we’ve been having a hard time getting basic connectivity working at our mountaintop homestead.  In the past month local ISP Fairpoint took us offline – two different times – and even messed up our business landline phone.

When things are working (and the landline works) we manage speeds of around 2.3 Mpbs down, and .65 up.  According to this FCC page that’s the minimum for some basic internet functions (email, web browsing, low end video, VOIP) but not enough for others (“Two-way online gaming in HD,” plus “university lectures” and “telelearning”, interestingly).  It’s way, way below the 25 down, 3 up that the FCC decided should mean “broadband” – a year and a half ago.

As you know, I can’t do key portions of my work at these speeds, including basic Skype, videoconferencing (like the Future Trends Forum), video uploading to YouTube, and so on.  Nonprofessional use is also unreliable.  Overall, “unreliable” is a good alternative word to use when thinking about Fairpoint, along with “sad” and “lethargically slow”.

Also, as my wife pointed out, there is now a safety issue if our landline is now unreliable.  Recall that we can’t get cell phone coverage here.  It seems that, independent of conditions (weather, accidents) we can be cut off from the world.  Which, while having the occasional tonic benefit for the mind, is not only lousy for work, but dangerous.

To their credit, one Fairpoint manager has been calling us regularly to check in.  Which we appreciate.

Have you ever experienced an outage_Fairpoint

I’m beyond irony with this outfit.

I’ve spent many hours over this past month investigating what can be done.  Here’s the latest.

  • Fairpoint will not make speeds faster at our house.  They refuse.  Politely, one rep explained to me that it would cost $37,000 US to bring faster cables this way; left unspoken was that any returns wouldn’t be worth the cost to Fairpoint.
  • The federal government has ladled money into Fairpoint specifically to improve connectivity, according to a rep from our state’s Congressman.  But it’s up to Fairpoint to allocate those resources, and we know they won’t end up here.
  • The nearest other ISP, Comcast, doesn’t reach our area, and has no plans to.
  • VTel, an entity charged by the state to bring fast wireless to even “the most rural areas”, does not reach our town, nor do they have plans to do so anytime soon.
  • ECFiber, a project bringing broadband to some small Vermont towns, does not reach over the mountain to us.  Nor are they legally allowed to.
  • Google isn’t bringing fiber anywhere near us.
  • Neither Verizon nor AT+T look to be extending cell coverage this way.
  • State government offices, like the Public Service Board, have basically conceded they can do nothing.  They’ve also stopped answering my emails.
  • Neither state gubernatorial candidate has expressed much interest in rural broadband.
  • Local ISP North Branch Networks gets us a connection that’s a little slow down, and a little better up.  A very useful tool for our toolkit.

In short, *nothing* is happening to improve the situation.  Rural broadband here has hit a thick and durable wall.

So what are we going to do about it?

Big box for Fairpoint's network switch nearest to us.

Big box for Fairpoint’s network switch nearest to us.

Here’s the current plan.

  1. Partnering with organizations in the area.  We’ve been fortunate to connect with several local libraries 30-45 minutes away, and are trying them out for speeds and access.I’ve also explored office options, and have found several, each with significant prices, very burdensome on our little business.  I prefer a coworking space, but there isn’t a coworking space in Middlebury (too small a town? no local demand?), so I’m looking at a nice one one hour away, in the town of Vergennes.
  2. Looking to hyperlocal government for… something.  The country’s economic development corporation has been very good about responding to my queries.  I’ll be meeting with our town’s selectboard in a few weeks, hopefully.
  3. Contacting local and state media.  It’s possible that the failure of rural broadband is a story.  It’s also conceivable that people have given up.
  4. Repeating outreach to local and state politicians.  I’ll ping each one with this update.
  5. Reaching out to Fairpoint’s investors.  Any advice on how best to do this, beyond my ongoing social media campaign?

To these I can add two more steps.

If government won’t act and the market has failed, is it time for social activism?  Many people are definitely ticked off at how poor rural broadband is.  Should I encourage protests?  Maybe hold a day of public meetings?

Here’s the biggest step of all.  Ceredwyn and I are now taking first steps to put our house on the market.

Yes.

That’s the nuclear option for us, but it’s rapidly becoming our only choice, as public policy and markets continue to stall out.

We’ve lived and worked here for a decade and a half.  We’ve turned an old hunting camp into a homestead through years of sweat, experiment, invention, and development.  We succeeded in building a lifestyle that bridges the 20th (or 19th!) and 21st centuries… or so we thought.

But as the 21st century raced ahead, Vermont’s rural broadband has fallen far behind, barely struggling out of the 20th.

As our business grew, Vermont failed to provide the sufficient infrastructure to help it succeed.

Our hypothesis now: after some efforts, Vermont has decided to not be serious about rural connectivity.  We would very much like to be proven wrong, but the hypothesis is the best explanation we can find.

In the meantime, we will now shift our efforts from trying out new crops and learning better forestry to improving the house’s curb value. Belay setting up that group of raised beds for corn; instead, turn to paint, cornices, improving the driveway’s appearance, and upgrading fixtures.

If Vermont gets its act together, or if we help that happen, then the worst outcome is that our house looks nice.  If Vermont decides not to do this, we’ll head towards moving and starting up a new chapter in our lives.

I don’t have time in this post to express the shattering heartache such a move would entail.  Heck, we don’t have time to think about it yet, between running a business that the state doesn’t care about and trying to get basic infrastructure operating, plus seeing our children through college.  If this move happens, I’ll post about it as it occurs.

PS: thank you to readers for your thoughts and support.  They have meant a great deal to us.

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28 Responses to Next steps for our rural broadband

  1. emdalton says:

    I am reminded of the early days of phone connections, when rural organizations used existing barbed wire to convey phone signals…. maybe an effort like this would be possible? http://www.benningtonbanner.com/localnews/ci_3713655 I’m sure you’re already aware of these folks….

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    • Not only aware, but we did that ourselves. Formed a co-op and worked with North Branch. And succeeded!
      Then Fairpoint came in and offered similar speeds for less money, so we went into hibernation to let our residents save money.
      But their speeds have remained flat. And NBN can’t advance without major funding.

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  2. Have you tried to connect and build a network with people in other rural areas who have same perblem? Obviously, without reliable Internet finding and connecting with such people will be difficult. However if you use your blog to try to locate others, I and others can help by amplifying your articles via our networks. Seems to me this should be important policy issue. If you can’t get online imagine what this means for others who are less motivated than you. Good luck.

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  3. Thoughts on things to do that could start to have an effect: Coordinated pressure on the state, letters to the editor, our state and federal representatives. Activism including contacting the papers about the story. How are the other businesses in Ripton managing and would they be interested in bonding together to help implement change? Would something like a rural development loan be a way to meaningfully increase the speeds and viability of NBN? Frankly, I’m ready to do a letter to send to Congress Creatures and government officials from the town up documenting the impact of the loss of one business with two citizens who are knowledgeable and an asset to our local community. The income loss to the state from your income and business taxes moving elsewhere is a factor, but the loss to the community of a professional of your stature in education, your voice on the school board and local politics, your presence within the historical society; Ceredwyn’s presence as a rescue squad member, instructor and trainer of other valuable volunteers for rescue squads and fire departments in the state- and involvement of your family in the VFD- these are losses that cannot be assigned a dollar value. And if it’s happening in Ripton, what is the total cost to the state and our communities when the effect is magnified exponentially? I see no other way to combat the apathy of the better off retirees in this area who do not wish to spend money on education and investing in our community’s future. It is a small contribution, but worthy of effort.
    Tammy Snyder

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    • Good idea about talking to businesses. We’re already in touch with the Robert Frost Cabins.

      Papers: next up.

      Rural development loan: I can check.

      Feds: who should I ping? Already in touch with Welch, but not much traction there.

      Us: you’re the only person from the state to have said this, which is bittersweet. I’m grateful for the kind words, but don’t think anyone else is thinking along these lines. When I feel down, I think the opposite: folks glad to be shut of a troublesome family.

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  4. I’m fascinated by this story, because the more you talk about it the more I think that rural Internet is like rural electricity or paved roads–critical for economic development, and needing to be subsidized well. I’m guessing even an investment of the tens of millions in VT would fix your problem. I’m writing this from a house where I’m switching from Optimum to FiOS–to get from 60Mbps to 100Mbps internet. This is the advantage of living in the NYC metro area, but I’m guessing the economics for the business wouldn’t make that work for you.

    In terms of moving, if you want to stay in Vermont I assume if you were in the VTel service area, you would be fine. I also assume the whole situation was less of an issue when you were working for NITLE, they were providing a basic income, and your consulting work was just “extra”?

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    • I’m trying to understand why this has hit an inflection point in the last 12 months or so. It seems it’s also a function of the growth of the business.

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      • I can answer Mike’s question in one word. Video. Video has gone from “nice to have” to expected in a business context. The bandwidth to make video connections work is a log function of what it took for basic web and email. Investing in infrastructure to support it is expensive, which is why even high-end hotels suddenly have crappy crappy connections if they have not upgraded in the last 5 years or so — the explosion of smart phones and tablets means everybody expects to be able to stream video, at the same time.

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      • 60 to 100!

        It was actually an issue when I was working for NITLE, since that org used some videoconferencing. We never had good enough speed. I tried local options, including renting space from a local business (didn’t always work) and borrowing a Middlebury College office (hard to schedule).

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      • Valerie’s answer is very right, Mike. Video is part of my daily work:
        -video meetings by Skype etc.
        -downloading videos for research
        -my weekly Future Trends Forum meetings
        -downloading and uploading videos to YouTube for the Forum

        Additionally, podcasts have suddenly become mainstream. I’ve contributed to several, and thought of creating my own, but uploading challenges make me put this off.

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    • Paganaidd says:

      Mike,

      You have the gist of the problem, right there. Reliable broadband Internet is as vital to business in the 21st Century as passable roads and electricity.

      I think that, even were Bryan still working with NITLE, this would become a problem for the reasons Valerie Bock mentions below. Plus, we are expanding as a business. Bryan is spending more time online with video conferencing and his weekly Future Trends Forum series.

      Shumlin promised greater cell coverage five years ago after Irene, but it hasn’t happened.

      It appears that the state of Vermont has no interest in attracting either business or young people and are indeed content to become one large retirement community.

      I am broken-hearted at the prospect of leaving Vermont. As Bryan said, it is the nuclear option, but I fear it looks more likely with each passing day.

      Like

  5. tonzijlstra says:

    I’ve been thinking about your remarks on rural internet in the past days a lot. It makes me realize how spoiled our household is (we’ve had fiber to the home with 100Mbps symmetrical since 2010, and upgraded to 1Gbps symmetrical last year spring) The symmetrical bit has been very useful to us.

    It also makes me think about when my brother in law had a company aiming to bring rural broadband to remoter areas in the UK., and how difficult that was then (already a bunch of years ago) to achieve. They would try to get a certain % of inhabitants on board in a village or hamlet and use that base to connect the entire area. In the end he folded the company. But the way they worked in terms of hardware etc. seems workable still: building radio connections to the nearest decent internet entry point, and mesh network with open hardware to get everyone covered. You’d be basically creating a local network and then use multiple internet connections to provide enough bandwith for it. But it’s very likely that is not bandwith enough, nor dependable/robust enough for your needs. Firechat style is good for messaging, not for video confing after all. And I guess it is safe to assume cell phone coverage is just as crappy?

    Satellite internet? Although latency issues may mean videoconferencing is not feasible. Not sure there’s a service provider you could approach.
    Also ham packet radio comes to mind as a way to get your signal to a decent broadband connection point somewhere else. Any hams in your area, they might have some ideas?

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    • 100 up and down! A GIG up and down?!

      Mesh is nice, but we need to get the big broadband pipe running into the area first. That costs a lot of money. Then it needs to be reconfigured for mesh, which is also not cheap.

      Cell coverage is at best crappy, otherwise nonexistent.

      Satellite is horrendous.

      Can ham carry internet?

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      • tonzijlstra says:

        Yeah, it feels somewhat embarassing in this context (https://www.facebook.com/tonzijlstra/posts/10152899490347957 )

        Ham radio, yes, internet over it exists. Although by definition it’s experimental (otherwise outside the scope of a ham license), and bandwith is an issue. Packet radio (which we operated in the UHF and SHF ham bands) has been there since mid-80s. Several initiatives may be worth a look at the moment, Dstar, Winlink (messaging only), and possibly Hinternet. Videoconferencing is likely asking too much of these technologies though, now that I’ve googled around a bit.

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  6. Bryan,
    I have always been fascinated by your Geminian choice to live at the two extremes of the grid–admired it and wondered at it because those two dreams entwine to become one of the core mythic motifs here in the Pacific Northwest: Back to the Land vs Back to the Future.

    For every back to the land couple I know, there has come a tipping point that has driven them one way or another. Their decisions are always driven by economics and what they can or can’t go forward with or without. It’s as if the myth can’t endure the polar tension and the hero needs to move along one road or the other.

    For you and your wife are definitely actively moving through a Hero Journey together, not enjoying your Road of Trials and Belly of the Whale experiences, nor are you meant to. But your Meeting with the Goddess and Apotheosis are coming your way; I’ll be interested to see what form those important moments take.

    Be of good cheer, for the powers of the universe support the hero in his struggle to find the Elixir of Life.

    Love from Sandy
    PS You DO remember what’s at the end of the Oregon Trail, don’t you?

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  7. jtabron says:

    Wow. Sorry to hear about the nuclear option, and brain still spinning, wondering what is the right/best answer. Not what we were all hoping for for you, or for your state. 😦

    Like

  8. Chuck Steel says:

    The Grange played a major role in making sure rural telephone connections were offered nationwide. I’m not sure what their stance is on rural internet, but that is another group that you could possibly network with on lobbying efforts.

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  9. This is a very important piece of writing, and I hope it gets heard–and long before you move. Vermont–and other rural areas–constantly complain about lack of young people wanting to move in. Young people grew up in a world of devices. If they can’t use them, they will not come, no matter how nice it is here. This should be an absolute bipartisan no-brainer for our political class, but I fear their knowledge base is too low to make it happen.

    Like

    • Thank you, Bill.

      I fear that there are new attitudes re: young people in rural areas.
      1) Democrats not caring, since their core constituents are urban and suburban.
      2) Seniors wanting retirement areas, not as interested in attracting younger folks.
      3) Segmentation: seeing young folks into Chittenden county, boxing that off as a 21st century preserve.

      Like

  10. Joel N. Weber II says:

    Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) in the UK may be an example worth emulating.

    Like

  11. tonzijlstra says:

    FCC not appealing verdict concerning municipal broadband being forbidden at state level: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/08/fcc-admits-defeat-in-municipal-broadband-wont-appeal-court-loss/

    Like

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