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September 28, 2006

Broadband Access in Vermont

A NY Times story this morning confirms what Fractals of Change readers already know, broadband access is hard to get – sometimes impossible to get – in rural areas of Vermont.

The bad news is that the story is correct: It is no secret that Verizon would like to sell its access lines here and has been under-investing in the state; Verizon does NOT currently offer DSL service to many of its Vermont subscribers and has only committed to 80% availability by 2010; cable Internet access is not available in many rural areas; dialup service is increasingly inadequate in a connected world.  Lack of broadband access hurts Vermont’s tourist industry in particular (people want to be connected – even on vacation) and its overall ability to create high-paying jobs.

Note: Vermont’s August unemployment rate of 3.7% is significantly better than the national rate of 4.7%.  The problem is not jobs but rather high-paying jobs with a future.  Moreover, the problem is not statewide: much of the greater Burlington area, for example, is thriving because of good communication and transportation infrastructure, a diversified economic base, and the presence of the University of Vermont.

The good news is that Vermont is determined to do something about its broadband access problem and has a very good chance of succeeding to the extent that broadband access together with beautiful scenery, excellent recreation opportunities, real neighborhoods, and “moonlight in Vermont” will retain and attract knowledge workers – even those who must be highly connected.

I have been working on a volunteer basis with the Governor’s Telecommunications Advisory Council.  This is a bipartisan effort to improve Vermont’s telecommunications infrastructure appointed by Republican Governor Jim Douglas and chaired by Democratic former Governor Tom Salmon.  No one is under the illusion that a government council by itself is the answer to a problem; but the council serves to coordinate multiple efforts – public and private – and is a great vantage point to see what is happening to improve both broadband and cellular access in the State and perhaps help accelerate progress.

Locally-owned telephone companies have done a much better job than Verizon at providing high speed access to their customers.  ALL of the subscribers of  Waitsfield Champlain Valley Telecom can get high speed access.  The Times article points out that these carriers get a higher government subsidy per customer than Verizon does; on the other hand (the article doesn’t point out), these companies don’t have the much-easier-to-serve urban franchises that Verizon inherited from the AT&T monopoly days.

The NY Times story mentions WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) Jake Marsh whose Island Pond Wireless is serving customers in one of the State’s most rural areas. There are a growing number of rural WISPs providing service where Verizon and the cablecos can’t or won’t.  These include Power Shift Online here in Stowe whose antenna on our roof provides broadband capability to our neighbors and GlobalNet who provide us with an incredible 3meg up and down at our camp in South Hero for $40/month.

WISPs may be an essential factor not only in bring broadband service to rural areas but also in providing an alternative to the telco-cableco duopoly throughout the United States.  Symmetric 3meg service like that offered by GlobalNet is more than competitive with DSL and is a good alternative to cable.  Wireless infrastructure can be built quickly and doesn’t involve tearing up streets and digging trenches.  One house which can “see” the local wireless antenna can be a repeater bringing service to neighbors who can’t see the primary antenna directly.  Mike Thompson, President of GlobalNet, told me that they would install a repeater wherever as few as five neighbors want service.

Part of the economic problem in Vermont is that Verizon offers DSL at the center of many of our villages leaving the rural donut around the village center unserved and expensive to serve on its own.  Addressing this problem is complicated by the fact that Verizon has agreed to extend DSL to more of its customers in Vermont but hasn’t said where – makes it tough for would-be competitors to get financing to serve areas not currently served by Verizon but where the Goliath might show up with a cut-rate DSL service.

Not only is wireless service a good way to reach the donut; it also can be competitive in the center of the village.  That does change the rules and reduce Vermont’s dependence on Verizon.  Moreover, if WISPs start offering basic telephone service over their infrastructure (VoIP) and split the savings with their rural customers (who are charged an arm and a leg by Verizon today), WISP service gets more profitable and the effective cost not only of broadband but basic voice to goes down for the WISP’s customers.

The same areas which don’t have broadband don’t have cable.  This isn’t quite as dire because satellite access to TV content is adequate (while satellite Internet access is NOT!).  But my guess is that, in the not very distant future, the content we get from cable and satellite and much, much more will be available through a highspeed Internet connection.  Displacing satellite and cable providers is one more revenue opportunity for ISPs, wired and unwired, who serve Vermont.

Vermont does have a problem.  Vermont knows it has a problem.  Vermonters’ll solve the problem.  Most of the solution will come from the private sector.  The State and, to some extent, the towns can help and will.

A legislator was asked at one of Telecom Council meetings if broadband is a top priority for the legislature.  “No,” he said, “not directly.  But good broadband access is essential to achieving all of our top priorities.”  He’s right.

Wireless service is making it possible for me to both post this blog today AND watch the hills of Vermont turn red, gold, and yellow.  If you’re thinking of moving to Vermont and you can take the winters, don’t let a lack of broadband scare you.  This is the kind of place where you can be part of the solution if you want to.

Note: opinions in this post and in Fractals of Change are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Telecom Council or anyone else.

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