After lunch Ceredwyn, Hestia, and I walked around the house. It was unusually warm for this time of year, 39°F or about 4℃. The skies were gray, and some mist rose up from surviving snowpiles. It felt a bit like March as we tromped along the little ponds, the minor woodpiles, the front flower plot, the driveway’s stone wall, the major wood storage, the hot tub.
Walking with us was a realtor.
Yes, we are starting the process of selling our house.
There are two reasons for this major step, the first being our youngest son is aiming for college next fall. In around eight or nine months Ceredwyn and I will be the only humans in the house, and have a lot more freedom to move.
The biggest reason, of course, and one familiar to readers of this blog, is that broadband here is horrendous and not getting better. This is frustrating, at best, for our personal lives, making entertainment, education, culture, and family connections difficult. More importantly there’s an important chunk of our work that we can’t do from our house or town: downloading major files. Conducting audio- and videoconferences: it’s no longer quaint to have to turn the camera off to preserve sound quality. Producing and publishing audio and video projects: podcasts, Future Trends Forum live sessions and recordings, more video sent to YouTube. That’s a growing proportion of our work – heck, of many professions – and other such needs are coming on line fast, like VR and AR production.
After nearly a year of intensive research and networking, following more than a decade of community work, we cannot escape the conclusion that Vermont is just not interested in expanding rural broadband. The state does not consider broadband to be a utility. The outgoing governor, Peter Shumlin, quietly gave up on the universal connectivity goal. The incoming governor, Phil Scott, has said openly and clearly that he will not pursue that goal. For the private sector, businesses have been upfront about resisting rural expansion for business reasons. So unless a solution appears on the Green Mountains over the next few months, we’re getting ready to exit.
This is a heartbreaking decision for Ceredwyn and I. We’ve lived here almost twenty years. Vermont is the best state we’ve ever lived in. Our two children grew up in Ripton. We have many deep roots in the community, from serving on school and community TV boards to riding with the fire department to building up a local highspeed network to working on the local historical society and fighting to protect our post office and more. I run the town blog. We have many terrific friends here. Our hearts are in this place.
But Vermont is not interested in keeping us here, neither our family nor our business. That is now quite clear. So we have to make peace with heartache, which will probably take the rest of our lives, and start packing.
That’s why we’re starting the house selling process and taking our business with us. Over the next three months we’ll do a lot of interior preparation work. Once the snow and ice fade we’ll turn the the house’s exterior. Late May is our rough market debut schedule.
Where will we go? Well, our options are actually quite broad, since we won’t have children in local schools, and Bryan Alexander Consulting is now an international business. Our work occurs online or with clients, so we only need basic office speed (AND BROADBAND). Our current desiderata include:
- Blazing fast internet.
- Good to plentiful local/regional higher education.
- Ready access to a good or major airport.
Beyond that… we’re flexible and exploring. Extended family needs might take us to southeast Michigan or central Virginia. Two potential urban locations in Vermont are actually in our sights. We’re open to suggestions.
There’s a larger point to this decision beyond our family’s particulars. We bought and organized our house as homesteaders.
We wanted to be a self-sufficient as possible. To that end we raised animals (ducks, chickens, goats, turkeys), planted and grew crops (corn, beans of all kinds, various berries, potatoes, carrots, etc.), and planted and tended fruit trees. We’ve built up the soil through extensive composting. We heated the house entirely by wood, some of which we logged ourselves. Water came from a well. We faced challenges ranging from the hilarious to the brutal, including week-long power outages, temperatures below -35 F, and bear incursions. We learned… easily a PhD worth of what it takes to live sustainably on the Earth outside of cities and suburbs. Much more than I can outline in a single blog post.
And we can’t do it any longer without broadband internet. We can’t homestead and also provide an income for our selves, and do the work we love, without that essential technical infrastructure.
This digital gap is a hard limit for anyone going back to the land, excluding the small and shrinking group of purists and others who do without the digital world. If this gap persists, there will be fewer Helen and Scott Nearings in the future. The pool of deep, practical knowledge involved in living on the land will shrink.
More importantly, this connectivity chasm is also a hideous cramp fastened onto rural America, because the biggest digital divide is now between city and country. We are not solving the problem, and the nation isn’t really concerned about it, based on recent politics and cultural currents, even thought this election arguably turned massively on the urban-rural divide. If I’m right about this, the city-country gap is just going to widen, with consequences for culture, economics, families, and America as a modern nation.
The problem is especially acute in Vermont. Like the Rust Belt, like the rest of upper New England, we’re aging. Vermont’s median age is about 43, nearly a decade past the nation’s. The younger, most technology-reliant populations are tending to move to cities, emptying out the graying countryside. How we will sustain a population increasingly consisting of retirees with a shrinking pool of younger workers is an open question. Our poor infrastructure and lack of interest in technology means Japan’s solution – robotics – is not on the table.
In general, American states and businesses are no longer interested in extending the 21st century to rural folk. Think about what that means, what a terrible division we’re witnessing. We’re quietly and passively erecting digital walls potentially as vast and ugly as Trump’s desired Mexican barrier, but without any civic outrage, concern, or even awareness. I shudder to think of the consequences.
Perhaps Ceredwyn and I can find a rural location steeped in broadband goodness. We’re looking, and, as I said above, open to suggestions. Otherwise we’ll close the homesteading chapter of our lives together and explore cities and towns.
Any suggestions or thoughts for our big shift, dear readers? We’re listening and reading, while making our preparations.