(Just published this on VT Digger)
Now that the 2016 election is over and we’re looking forward to the near future, we should consider one Vermont issue that hasn’t received a lot of attention. Rural internet connectivity is not doing well, isn’t improving fast enough, and will damage Vermont in the near future.
For several terms Gov. Shumlin advocated for expanding internet access and improving speeds. Initially those efforts bore fine fruit, as many homes and businesses got online for the first time, and some enjoyed the benefits of high speed connections. Schools, hospitals and other community anchor sites also connected and benefitted. New enterprises appeared to further connections, like VTel and ECFiber.
However, after this heroic progress, broadband growth has since stalled out, and the universal access mission has failed as of this writing. Cell phone coverage is spotty, on average, with plenty of dead zones and one-bar areas beyond Chittenden County. Too many Vermonters only have one internet service provider (ISP) to choose from, meaning those ISPs, lacking competition, don’t have to strive to provide fine service. Indeed, service can be lousy, and without options people have no choice other than to accept it.
This is especially acute in rural Vermont — that is, the majority of the state’s acreage and home to a significant proportion of our population. When we in the country can get online, the actual speeds realized are often far below those the FCC ruled to really be broadband (25 megabits per second).
Why is this a problem?
It’s a blow to the Vermont economy. Businesses without broadband cannot conduct business fully. They miss customers, sales and marketing opportunities. Fewer startups arise, since broadband is usually a key element to getting an enterprise off the ground in the 21st century. Tourism also suffers, since a good number of visitors would like the option of being online when leaf-peeping (how else will they upload photos?) and skiing (that GoPro video clip needs to get to YouTube somehow). Annoyed tourists, fewer startups, smaller businesses, harder chances for commercial success: lame broadband is a direct hit on Vermont’s livelihood.
Lame broadband is also a blow to education. We now have access to an enormous amount of educational content online, from videos to podcasts to simulations, animations, virtual reality and augmented reality … unless we can’t get online at all, or the available speeds choke off that content before it gets to us. In a 21st century economy influenced powerfully by knowledge, bad internet cripples our children’s abilities to learn, prosper and succeed. This problem also applies to people other than enrolled students, to any Vermonter who is curious or needs to know about a topic. Broadband boosts such informal learning; lack of broadband saps it.
Demographically, there are no apparent advantages to having low quality broadband. We might attract some visitors or retain several locals who want to be forced into disconnection, but those small populations are greatly outnumbered by people who require fast connections. Think of Millennials, many of whom assume an online life. Is Vermont going to shun them, or only admit small numbers to select cities? Unless we boost connectivity, we may lose entire generations.
Think, too, about our civic life. We know that people can use digital technologies (mobile phones, social media, laptops, etc.) to learn more about their communities, to engage with their neighbors, and to become more politically engaged. We’ve seen some of that already with projects like FrontPorchForum and this site, VTDigger. For a state like ours that values our democratic traditions, more connectivity meaning a more lively democracy is surely a desired good.
It’s also a problem that’s getting worse. While our speeds stall out, the world is moving on. Audio- and videoconferencing tools are multiplying and becoming ever more mainstream, from Skype to Facetime, Google Hangout and Zoom. People increasingly use these for work, for learning and for personal connections. More and more people experience music and video through streaming services, such as Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify. Newer technologies, like virtual reality, are demanding even higher broadband capacity. A big swath of Vermont will be left behind, unless we catch up.
Admittedly, for some people lame broadband is a feature, not a bug. Bill “Spaceman” Lee said so in a recent debate, arguing that we can all benefit from being offline. There’s a lot of debate about the balance of online and offline life, but that’s not really the question of Vermont connectivity. The problem is many Vermonters do not have the option of choosing how many hours of the day they’d like to be connected, and how many off. The infrastructure isn’t there, which forces us into the pre-broadband world, like it or not. We have no choice. Having sufficient broadband gives us the ability to choose, and to learn about the various advantages and disadvantages. Universal broadband is, ultimately, a very democratic situation.
Why haven’t we succeeded in building sufficient internet infrastructure?
For a state like ours that values our democratic traditions, more connectivity meaning a more lively democracy is surely a desired good.
To begin with, most of Vermont is lightly populated, rural, and a good portion of that difficult terrain, notably mountains. Low population makes it difficult to make a business case for the capital outlay, and challenging terrain adds to those costs. For-profit providers, such as Fairpoint or AT&T, have little incentive to provide service to these areas.
Moreover, expanding broadband has not been a major issue in Vermont politics. It rarely appears in news, and only recently came up in this year’s gubernatorial race. Economic and logistical limitations seem to have largely blocked political will. Additionally, regulatory structures give various state offices little power to shape bandwidth deployment.
I fear the state of affairs has some serious inertia as well. That is, those without broadband or cell phone access are now used to it, and don’t expect better. Some have been trained to assess 5 megabits as broadband. Our lack of options makes us fatalistic. A lack of political discussion further depletes our options. Poor broadband leads to more poor broadband.
What is to be done? I would like to make several suggestions in the hopes of sparking a discussion, so that we could together come up with good solutions.
- Survey Vermonters to understand our connectivity situation. We could ask people who their providers are, if they’re satisfied with their speeds, and what they use the technology for.
- The state government could shift more funds to expand connectivity. This could involve setting up other enterprises like ECFiber, or expanding VTel, or helping get other providers more funding to deploy more technology.
- Improve the regulatory process so that it’s easier for providers to develop new services.
- Partner with technology companies who are interested in growing connectivity, like Facebook, Google or Acetlis.
- Contacting federal agencies for more assistance, such as the FCC or USDA (source of grant funding).
- Expand support for public libraries. They are often a town’s leading site for getting online, both because they provide technology and also by teaching any visitor how to work online.
- Expand support for community broadband. Providers like North Branch Networks do innovative, crucial and underappreciated work. They also exemplify Vermont’s culture of small and local creativity.
- Develop a popular pro-broadband pressure group to keep the heat on the Legislature and ISPs.
Which of these sounds most feasible and effective? Are there other ways forward?
*Full disclose: for years I sat on the board of a local co-op that worked with North Branch Networks to successfully bring broadband for the first time to our town.