How can we bring broadband to rural areas?
Over the past few months I’ve been blogging about our Vermont region’s struggles to get decent highspeed. Let me update you on where things stand.
Short version: there has been some potential, more frustration, and a single glimmer of hope. It is now political.
Part 1: Fairpoint follies
A few weeks ago Fairpoint, our only available ISP and major telco in the region, sent around a memo claiming to improve speeds in our county, singling out Ripton by name. Which was nice.
However, exactly nothing has happened since.
When I called their business office, the rep said they had no idea what I was talking about. I haven’t heard anything since, not by official communications, nor in response to my queries.
Meanwhile, I’ve been researching technologies which could speed up existing broadband services. Some companies claim they can bring fiber speeds to copper connections.
I’ve pinged Fairpoint about this. Once again, nothing.
Indeed, the person at their Customer Excellence Center whom I’ve been talking with for a couple of months has stopped answering her phone. Every call of mine goes straight to voicemail, and she hasn’t called back.
Their Twitter accounts, both general and for business, have been less than helpful:
So what’s going on with Fairpoint? Did they announce a service improvement too early? Are they working on something even now, but their communication setup isn’t connected to it? Is this a bait and switch, or just puffing smoke?
Part 2: Gubernatorial candidates finally offer positions
On October 17th Vermont PBS and Seven Days (our local alt weekly) hosted a roundtable debate about Vermont and technology among our three leading gubernatorial candidates. The results were very illuminating. I actually played a small role, as Seven Days kindly invited me to record a video question about rural broadband (you can see it here), and played the question for the candidates (starting here). Cathy Resmer did a fine job of hosting and moderating discussion.
Phil Scott (GOP, currently service lieutenant governor) said it was impossible to bring broadband to everyone. He was very open about this point, arguing that the two previous governors had promised universal broadband, but were unable to deliver it. He didn’t want to overpromise.
In particular he wanted to maintain and set the conditions for improving broadband to… those who already have it, namely Vermont cities and areas with high population densities. This is a clear signal that he will not act to boost broadband in the countryside.
Scott also expressed hopes for new technologies, namely AT&T’s concept of carrying broadband over electrical lines (one explainer). He did not offer a timeline for this.
Overall, Scott’s position is very conservative, especially in the Burkean sense. He wants smaller roles for state government, and hopes the private sector will solve problems. In our case, this is a recipe for failure, since market forces have stalled out their connectivity rollout.
Sue Minter (Democrat, various state positions, notably leader of post-Irene recovery) said she wants universal broadband for all the right reasons: economic, educational, cultural benefits. She shared very precise and accurate policy and technological details.
Around the time of this debate her website sprouted a pro-broadband policy page. It’s possible that our community’s activism on broadband has had some impact on her campaign. Personally, she now has my vote.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee (Liberty Union, baseball) offered a mixed response. Like Scott, he expressed hope that technological developments would solve the rural broadband problem. He seemed especially interested in drone-based connectivity.
But he began by opposing broadband. It’s a bad idea to be so connected, he explained. He hates the idea. And the audience clap of support is telling and depressing. Part of Vermont resists rural broadband. That’s not often discussed, but is one force holding us back.
Several other folks asked really good questions. Jessamyn West asked candidates to consider technology use among civic leaders and government (starting here). (She has an important blog post on the topic, too) Cathy Resmer framed this as a digital divide question.
Here’s the debate:
I’m going to keep pressuring Fairpoint to improve speeds. Actually, I have to get them to figure out how to communicate with customers, first.
I’ll ping the Minter and Scott campaigns to keep the pressure on. Alas, I can’t communicate with Lee, since he refuses to have a website.
What do you think?
(thanks to Jessamyn West for helping find the debate timing URLs)