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WCAX TV Interview with Me about Building Broadband in Vermont

Kristen Carlson of WCAX did a great interviewing me on why we need to finish the stimulus-funded middle mile broadband buildout in Vermont so that we can have the last mile Internet and cellular service which is lacking in rural areas. This is a counterpoint to her earlier interview with FairPoint Vermont President, who says this buildout is unfair competition with the private sector.

Part of the interview played on the 6PM news today, but the whole interview ran on Kristen's show "The :30" and is available below.

FairPoint and Vermont (and the other Carriers)

Yesterday I wrote a response to FairPoint Vermont President Mike Smith's interview on WCAX's You Can Quote Me. In a response to my post, which was posted on vermonttiger.com, Mr. Smith characterizes my post as a "rant" and accuses me of "vindictiveness". In fact, I'm grateful to Mike Smith for helping to launch the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA); there are good things to say about FairPoint (see below); Smith raises interesting points which deserve responses (also see below); and I'm hopeful that the VTA will be able to work with FairPoint as it already is with other service providers.

Some Good Things About FairPoint (there are more)

  1. Even through its bankruptcy, the company has made a good faith effort to keep the promise it made to the Public Service Board to build out residential broadband to 100% of 50 designated exchanges. It looks that'll get done although understandably a little after the original schedule.
  2. The company has done a much better job of investing in Vermont than Verizon, its predecessor.
  3. FairPoint workers have made an extraordinary effort to shield their customers from the effects both of the problem-plagued cutover from Verizon's back office computer systems and bankruptcy.
  4. Bankruptcy drastically reduced FairPoint debt – bad news for the debt holders but good news for Vermont since capital can now be spent on network improvements.
  5. FairPoint hired Mike Smith as its Vermont President. I'm sure he is as fervent an advocate for Vermont within FairPoint as he is for FairPoint within Vermont.

The company has asked for freedom from the kind of regulation it was under when it was a monopoly provider. I think it should get that flexibility, both in fairness and so Vermont can get better service through increased competition.

Interesting Points Which Deserve a Response

In his Tiger post, Smith says:

"…this state has plenty of middle mile networks (think of the middle mile as an interstate).  If you are going to provide stimulus funding it should be directed to the last mile (to the home) where the need is greatest in Vermont.  The Vermont Telecommunications Authority stimulus funded project simply overbuilds existing privately funded middle mile networks.  It is a waste of taxpayer's money and duplicates existing networks and does not bring meaningful last mile broadband to Vermonters."

Actually Mike Smith understates the reach of the FairPoint network by comparing it to the interstate; but fiber does not go far enough into rural Vermont. We need to get fiber close to every neighborhood and have it be abundant (and inexpensive) in order to support the affordable high speed last mile services that Vermonters need. The last mile is the town roads and driveways of the Internet. There's no point in building last mile unless there's something to connect it to the rest of the world. In some places, the fiber which VTA received the stimulus grant for will be that connection and it will go further out into the boondocks than FairPoint fiber does. Remember, the feds only gave grants for unserved and underserved areas, and that's what VTA targeted. However, in getting to underserved areas, fiber in the VTA project will parallel some existing FairPoint and other carrier fiber. The VTA tried to put together a consortium which could use all existing fiber builds and be purely additive but FairPoint, as its right, declined to join such a group (see below).

Even if the VTA wanted to build last mile connections with the grant money as Smith suggests (which would certainly compete with FairPoint), the law behind the grants doesn't allow this money to be used for this purpose. VTEL did get last mile grants and loans of over $100 million from another part of stimulus and will use this federal money to compete with FairPoint and other carriers. Waitsfield Champlain also got last mile money. FairPoint sought but didn't get a last mile grant in the first stimulus round and didn't apply in the second round. I'm the first to admit that, once "free" capital is available, private companies (and states) are forced to compete for that capital. You can argue that there should never have been a stimulus bill; but, once there was, it was dangerous for Vermont or any carrier not to try to get its share of the money.

Smith also said:

"…no one argues that when I was Secretary of Administration I was instrumental in creating the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. Others are now interpreting my thoughts.  So let me set the record straight on what I was thinking.   I always envisioned this authority working in a collaborative effort with the private sector, not going in direct competition with them.  By deciding to become a competitor the VTA loses all objectivity and credibility in the industry.  In fact, this has happened and it didn't need to be so."

No question that Smith was instrumental in creating the VTA and assuring that it had $40 million of revenue bonding authority.

Revenue bonds have to be paid back out of revenue so, had it issued them, the VTA would have needed revenue. The only services it is authorized to provide are wholesale communications like fiber backhaul and tower rental; these are services which are provided by telecommunications carriers – but often not at an affordable price or with enough capacity and coverage in rural areas. The VTA was meant to remedy this lack; that means competing with those who sell low capacity service at very high prices.

However, Smith is right that it's preferable for the VTA work collaboratively with the private sector than to compete with it. When conventional telecommunication funding became unavailable in the great recession, all eyes turned to stimulus funding (I was then Vermont's Chief Recovery Officer responsible, among other things, for coordinating our response to competitive stimulus grants). Many Vermont service providers applied individually for first round broadband stimulus funding for both last mile (retail residential and small business) and middle mile (wholesale and "community anchor institutions"); FairPoint was among the applicants. My office did what it could to support these applications. However, except for a small mapping application, Vermont struck out in the first round of broadband grants.

In contrast to that, the electric utilities followed a strategy developed in a meeting between Governor Douglas, Vice President Biden, and me of making a single ambitious coordinated application for Smart Grid funding. They succeeded and Vermont was awarded the largest Smart Grid grant per capita in the nation. I resolved to try the same strategy for the second round of middle mile broadband grants and asked the VTA (which has an independent board) to be the umbrella applicant. VTA agreed and issued an RFP to service providers inviting them to participate in a combined application (or a combined project possibly using VTA funding if stimulus money were not available) for all unserved and underserved areas of Vermont. We (the VTA and the Recovery Office) also aggregated demand from community anchor institutions including state government, hospitals, schools, libraries and others, both to give the grant request added impetus and to provide a revenue incentive to carriers to participate.

There were conditions. Networks built partially with government money had to be open access. Participants had to agree to offer service to all anchor institutions within each region they proposed to serve and to charge not more than $500 for a gigabit per second of transport at each location. This price was not an arbitrary number; it is close to what is charged in urban areas and was meant to bring our rural areas and institutions into parity with their urban competitors. A gigabit is 1000 megabits; the going price in some rural areas from existing carriers including FairPoint was hundreds of dollars for a t-1 (1.5 megabits).The difference is huge. However, there is also profit potential in drastically lower prices; many more customers will buy broadband at the lower prices; the resulting economic development will create more customers.

We hoped that most or at least many carriers would participate just as all of the electric utilities did. It wasn't to be. Although we had discussions with most carriers, in the end only Sovernet decided to meet the conditions and be a sub-applicant in the VTA application. VTEL decided to apply on its own; my office decided to support that application as well as the VTA application despite our initial strategy of putting all eggs in one basket since there was only one carrier in the VTA application and the state would get better coverage if both were funded. FairPoint decided not to be part of a combined application and not to apply on its own. In the end, the feds did decide to fund both VTA and VTEL for middle mile. Separately, VTEL and Waitsfield-Champlain received federal funding for last mile projects. Under federal law, funding for these two types of project is separate and cannot be moved back and forth.

So, to make an already long story short, VTA is collaborating with a private carrier – as Mike Smith says we should be – on a middle mile project; but that carrier is, Sovernet, not FairPoint. It could have been both. Sovernet, not the VTA, is FairPoint's competitor and Sovernet will contribute $12 million of match but will certainly benefit from state and federal money. Rural Vermonters will benefit from both the VTEL and the VTA/Sovernet projects. Last mile providers will be able to reach residential customers much more cheaply because of the availability of wholesale fiber near more places.

Opportunities for FairPoint and the VTA to Collaborate

  1. FairPoint has applied to the VTA for state-funded grant money. Applications for this program exceed the funding available and I don't know how the FairPoint applications will do – but they will be fairly considered.
  2. FairPoint can retain existing customers and attract new ones by providing high capacity last mile connections from the middle mile being built with the VTA grant when that fiber comes closer to the customers than FairPoint's own fiber. Carriers often buy and sell from each other to enhance the reach of their networks.
  3. It may still possible for FairPoint to sell access to its fiber to Sovernet and VTEL to use in their builds if the price is right and enough is available. These are properly private business decisions.

Note: Although I am a Board member of the VTA, this post is purely my own opinion. I am writing it to set the record straight on the founding of the VTA and the applications for stimulus grants, which I was heavily involved in first as Chief Recovery Officer for Vermont and then as Chief Technical Officer. Most important I am writing this to help assure that we do use stimulus money to achieve the universal cell coverage and affordable broadband which Vermont needs and deserves.

Related posts:

The First E-State

Flash! Vermont Legislature Passes E-State Bill

Vermont Broadband Stimulated with $45.6 Million

Fiber to the Neighborhood


FairPoint or Vermont?

Unfortunately FairPoint, the successor to Verizon for landlines in Northern New England, wants Vermont to choose between protecting a badly flawed FairPoint business plan or improving the economic future of Vermont's rural areas. The choice is stark: use the federal "middle mile" stimulus grant already awarded to the Vermont Telecommunication Authority (VTA) to bring fiber closer to rural Vermonters and make wholesale backhaul and institutional broadband affordable in rural areas of the state or forfeit the grant and leave these areas without adequate business, residential and cellular service.

It didn't have to be this way. FairPoint could have participated in the VTA's application for middle mile stimulus – but decided not to, at least in part (as they told me at the time) because they didn't like the open access requirements for a network built with state and federal money. FairPoint applied for stimulus money in the first round and was turned down (as was almost everyone in Vermont); FairPoint could have applied on their own for second round stimulus money as their competitor Vermont Telephone (VTEL) did with great success. FairPoint didn't apply.

You can make a market-based argument that no government money should be going into providing broadband services; that's an intellectually defensible argument. If we wait long enough, even rural areas of Vermont will get broadband and cellular service. Vermont explicitly rejected waiting when the Legislature passed Act 79 of 2007 and created the VTA. The argument made then – and one which still applies today – was the parallel with rural electrification. The state as a whole benefits by not leaving pockets of substandard infrastructure (substandard being relative to everything else). We also build paved state highways to lightly populated areas; we don't leave them connected town-to-town on gravel.

I was very involved in framing and advocating for the legislation which set up the VTA. Ironically, the lead for Governor Douglas was then Administration Secretary Mike Smith, who is now Vermont President for FairPoint. Mike, who was not then familiar with telecom issues, asked me what the obstacles were to the 100% broadband and cellular coverage that the Governor wanted to have in place by 2010 as part of the e-state initiative the Governor planned to describe to the legislature in his 2007 inaugural speech. I explained to Mike that rural areas in Vermont lacked the infrastructure on which retail broadband and cellular service depend – namely backhaul at affordable prices and cell towers. The VTA would have to use what capital it could raise to build cellular towers and fiber networks for resale to and use by private telecommunications service providers.

Verizon, which was already planning to leave the state, was the only wholesale or commercial provider in most rural areas. It sold T-1s (1.5 megabit backbone – very small) for hundreds of dollars per month each and without meaningful volume discounts. These T-1s were the only option that most retail Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had for backhaul (connection to the broad Internet). Small and medium business could not afford the connectivity they needed. So Internet-dependent businesses couldn't afford to be in rural areas and ISPs couldn't afford to provide customers with good retail service in these areas. In order to obtain rural retail service (including cellular) which was comparable to that available in urban areas, wholesale backhaul would have to be available at near-urban prices – which were at least a 90% reduction from what Verizon was then charging here. I was clear – and I'm sure Mike understood - that Verizon would not like to have its monopoly rents threatened and that any successor would have to be able to sell in much greater quantities because margins would be lower.

Now President of FairPoint in Vermont, Mike Smith said yesterday in an interview broadcast on WCAX that he never meant that the VTA should build fiber networks and provide middle-mile (backhaul) service. He thought it would be directing its efforts to cellular and to retail service. However, Act 79 which Mike was instrumental in getting through the legislature authorizes the VTA "to own, acquire, sell, trade, and lease equipment, facilities, and other infrastructure that could be accessed and used by multiple service providers, the state and local governments, including fiber optic cables, towers, shelters, easements, rights of way, and wireless spectrum of frequencies; provided that any agreement by the authority to sell infrastructure that is capable of use by more than one service provider shall contain conditions that will ensure continued shared use or colocation at reasonable rates [NB. All emphasis mine]".

Moreover, the Act also says "Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to grant power to the authority to offer the sale of telecommunications services to the public." In other words, the legislature specifically authorized VTA to be a wholesale provider and specifically forbad it to be a retail provider. The Legislature and the Governor meant the VTA to enable retail service by providing wholesale infrastructure.

Mike wants the VTA to use the $33 million stimulus grant it received from the feds to provide retail service instead of using it to build the open access middle mile network the money was awarded for. Even if this were desirable, it would not be possible. The Commerce Department, which awarded the money under the stimulus bill, was only allowed by law to give money for middle mile service. (The Agriculture Department, however, which had only money for retail service, did award a much larger sum to VTel for a retail fiber/wireless buildout.)

When the VTA together with sub-applicant Sovernet builds out its middle mile network and VTEL, which also got a middle-mile grant, does its build, fiber will be much closer to rural Vermont residences and businesses. That means high speed access at a reasonable price whether retail providers bridge the last mile with fiber, radio, copper, or coaxial cable.

If the VTA does not quickly use the money it was awarded for the intended purpose, it will be forfeit. The underserved areas of Vermont – the only places money was awarded for – will still have no backhaul alternative except overpriced, low capacity connections from FairPoint. It will not be practical to build more cell towers or even upgrade the radios in existing cell towers now that mobile phones are data hungry.

It didn't have to be FairPoint or Vermont. It still doesn't have to be a zero sum game. Although it is shrinking daily as customers abandon landlines for cellular and VoIP service, FairPoint still has a big customer base in Vermont and an excellent workforce. FairPoint can use low cost backhaul from the VTA, VTel, and others along with its own fiber to provide these customers better service at a lower cost BEFORE they leave for another carrier. Reasonably priced Internet access in Vermont will vastly expand the market for connectivity services – as will communication-fueled economic growth. This is the opportunity the VTA was formed to enable. This is an opportunity that FairPoint can benefit from. This is an opportunity that Vermont will benefit from.

Note: Although I am a Board member of the VTA, this post is purely my own opinion. I am writing it to set the record straight on the founding of the VTA and the applications for stimulus grants, which I was heavily involved in first as Chief Recovery Officer for Vermont and then as Chief Technical Officer. Most important I am writing this to help assure that we do use stimulus money to achieve the universal cell coverage and affordable broadband which Vermont needs and deserves.

Related posts:

The First E-State

Flash! Vermont Legislature Passes E-State Bill

Vermont Broadband Stimulated with $45.6 Million

Fiber to the Neighborhood


Unintended Consequences of Better Cell Coverage

Skiers lost in the woods, turns without signals, and long slow lines of cars on state highways: all are unintended consequences of better cell coverage in Vermont.

Reassured by being able to call 911, skiers leave the bounds of ski areas for fresh powder and thrills (they may also be encouraged by helmets which protect their boneheads). So far this year they've all been found after calling for help. Luckily none of the rescuers have been hurt and Vermont hasn't assessed the cost of rescues as is allowed under state law. This won't end happily; cell coverage in the Green Mountain State is better than it used to be; but we haven't yet reached our e-state goal of coverage everywhere. No bars mean much less chance of being rescued.

Turn signal use has declined drastically. Hey, waddaya want? If you got your phone in one hand, it's hard enough to turn the wheel without worrying about the damn signal.

Our state highways are two lanes and there aren't many places to pass as they wind through the hills. It used to be that you sometimes got stuck behind an elderly driver or a jalopy that couldn't climb hills or a hay wagon. Because there was no cell coverage on many roads, you couldn't call to say you'd be late. The good news is that you can call now. The bad news is that so can the person six cars ahead of you holding up a long line while chattering away. Dead giveaway is that talkers' speed varies without relation to terrain or speed limit.

More Unintended Consequences.

Exit Interview: From Smart Grid to Broadband and Back

Last week Geoffrey Norman of Vermont Tiger interviewed me on where Vermont is on Smart Grid and broadband as I retire from my job as state CTO, where I had some responsibility for both. Of course we talked about energy policy and economics as well. Geoff's a good interviewer so you may enjoy this.

The interview was hosted by community cable television station ORCA Media in Montpelier and made available to other CCTV stations in the state. Channel 17 in Burlington has posted an online-accessible video version as well.



Tiger (Sound) Bites

On my next to last day as Chief Technology Officer for the State of Vermont, my friends from VermontTiger.com came by to do a live interview. Murphy's law has no exceptions for CTOs; the technology didn't work as planned; the interview wasn't live - but it does exist.

We talked about what worked and didn't in stimulus, Vermont's broadband prospects, energy policy, and the swarm of organizations - for profit and nonprofit - in orbit around planet government, which are more of an obstacle to reducing government spending than the people visibly on the government payroll. I'll be writing about these things now that I have more time to blog; but you can get a preview by checking out the Tiger post and associated audio.

Broadband vs. NIMBY

Question: Now that the funding for border-to-border no-residence-left-behind highspeed broadband access in Vermont is at hand, what could stop us from fulfilling our e-state dream? (see here for the good news on funding).

Answer: Us!

Question: How can we save us from ourselves?

Answer: Un-sunset 30 V.S.A. § 248a.

To understand this bureaucratic answer, read on.

The plan for extending highspeed broadband to every residence depends on radio links using next generation cellular technology called LTE. The technology will provide us mobile as well as fixed service through a single account. It will indubitably lead to improvements in coverage for cellular voice service as well. But there's a catch. The base radios for this service – like all cellular services – need antennas mounted above interference. Although some of these antennas can go on public buildings and in places like church steeples, many if not most of them will have to be placed on towers. And most of these towers will be new. If we already had towers in the unserved parts of the state, those parts of the state wouldn't be unserved.

The towers can't be invisible or they won't work. At a minimum, the antennas need to be mounted twenty feet above the tree tops. If there are multiple service providers on a tower, which we hope there will be, the antennas for each service need to be separated by ten vertical feet. In general the tops of towers will be forty feet or more above the tree tops. Towers in high places are also a good thing from a communication point of view and high places aren't invisible either.

Although most people in a given area will be happy with new service, it is inevitable that some of those with the best views of the towers aren't going to want to have towers built in their view. NIMBY – Not In My BackYard syndrome – is a fact of human nature; it's not unique to Vermont. But those who oppose projects of any kind have learned how to use Vermont law – particularly Act 250 review by District Commissions and local zoning reviews – to impose very long and often fatal delays on projects.

Remember, the federal stimulus money awarded to Vermont Telephone (VTEL), the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), and others must be spent within three years! If these projects are unreasonably delayed, they may literally never get done.

When the Vermont legislature enacted Governor Douglas' e-state proposal in 2007, it recognized the danger that NIMBY poses to execution of this ambitious plan. To assure that tower-building didn't get unreasonably delayed, it allowed applicants for projects of three or more towers to go to the Public Service Board (PSB) rather than District Commissions for approval and set strict timelines for hearings. Moreover, local jurisdiction over these projects was preempted by this new 248a process. The 248a process was deliberately modeled after the procedure used by the PSB for electric utility projects. To oversimplify, Act 250 review considers only the negative aspect of a project including aesthetic impact (towers aren't invisible); 248a review requires the PSB to minimize impact BUT allows for the reasonable mitigation of impact by the public good that comes from a project (you need towers to get coverage).

Town by town review of multi-tower projects would be impossible. If one town insisted on re-siting one tower, than other towers would have to move to avoid coverage gaps and the project would start all over again. The 248a single review of the whole project by the PSB solves that problem.

But the whole authorization for 248a reviews expires (sunsets) July 1, 2011 – just when we're likely to need it most. Very simply, execution of our e-state plan for border-to-border broadband and cellular access depends on the next legislature and the next administration cooperating on a bill to removes the sunset clause. The language is as simple as "30 V.S.A. § 248a(i) is hereby repealed." This should happen in January at the start of the new legislative session so that project planners will know that they can become project builders in a reasonably short time. We have a lot to do and we can't let NIMBY stop us.




Yeah, wow!

Last week we learned that Vermont Telephone Company (Vtel) was awarded an $81 million federal grant and $35 million loan for its Wireless Open World (WOW) last mile broadband infrastructure project; Vtel will add $30 million of its own equity. It's hard to overstate the significance of this project, particularly in the context of the middle mile grants we were awarded just last month, our sustainable adoption grant, our Smart Grid grants, our mapping grants, the state's Backroads Broadband program, the capital appropriation of $4.5 million to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), a 1200 mile fiber backbone buildout by VELCO on its transmission network, our public safety network project (VCOMM), other public investments, and continuing investment by the state's private carriers.

Basically all of the capital is in place for Vermont to achieve its dream – very high speed Internet and cell service everywhere, leading the nation in broadband rather than following, having telecommunications be a reason companies move here instead of an obstacle to economic development! It's now up to us to execute – don't underestimate the difficulty of that. I'll write more shortly on what execution means now that the money is in hand; but the rest of this post is about VTel's WOW plan and how it gets us to universal broadband coverage.

Specifically, Vtel is providing three things with the money: fiber to the home in their "traditional" service area around Springfield, Vermont; wireless Internet access reaching virtually all of the estimated 15% of Vermont residences which can't get good broadband today as well as many small businesses; and neighbor-to-neighbor training to "show how broadband can help find jobs, improve schools, start businesses, access federal and state assistance, and enhance rural life."

All of Vtel's current telephone and broadband customers in fourteen towns in the Springfield area will get fiber to their homes and what Vtel describes as GigE service. A gigabit is one thousand megabits (you knew that, right). GigE means speeds up to one gigabit per second (1 gps). Vermont's minimum standard for acceptable broadband is 5 megabits per second (5 mps); so GigE is 200 times the minimum and more than a thousand times faster than basic DSL – forget about dialup. We don't need GigE speed today; we will someday, though; and it's good to be way ahead of the curve. Vtel sells this service now as a $34.95/month addon to a few of their customers. It does have a 500 Gigabyte monthly limit after which extra charges are assessed, however (there are eight gigabites in a gigabyte). BTW, GigE service is what Google had been promoting for nationwide service and plans to demo in some lucky location. According to Vtel President Michel Guite, Singapore hopes to complete a GigE network by2014; he promises we'll have ours by 2012 or 2013.

In the unserved areas of Vermont, VTel will be building an LTE network – LTE (Long Term Evolution) is so-called fourth generation (4G) cellular data technology. It is the technology which both AT&T and Verizon Wireless are planning to deploy in their networks as are most of the world's major carriers (some, like Sprint, are betting on a similar but competing technology called WiMAX). Note that what we are getting is so bleeding edge that it hasn't been commercially deployed anywhere yet; there's a risk in that but lots of benefit in being a leader. LTE should be capable of data rates well in excess of 10 megabits (10 mps) in each direction and upgradable to much more. It is a mobile technology so your smart phone or laptop or netbook or iPad or Kindle will be connected not only at home but also as you travel.

Indubitably one of the reasons why Vtel got the second largest award announced in this round nationwide – 10% of the total awarded – was that VTel has been investing its own money for years to acquire wireless spectrum (space on the radio waves in Vermont). This spectrum is a rare commodity and is required to offer this service.

The award that Vtel got is only for broadband coverage; there are no stimulus funds for cellular deployment. But the LTE network Vtel is building is the kind of network cellular carriers plan to use both for voice and data. In fact, more and more smart phones already support voice over IP (voice on a data network) so that services like Skype can work. Three years from now, when this network is fully deployed, I'll be very surprised if it isn't filling most of the gaps in our cellular voice coverage.

So, WOW!

Vermont Broadband Stimulated with $45.6 Million

The US Commerce Department recently announced that Vermont was awarded two broadband stimulus grants totaling $45,649,894 for "comprehensive community infrastructure". These awards should assure that Vermont achieves its e-state goal of going from broadband laggard to broadband leader. The projects will bring some benefits within a year; they'll be completed within three years. By that time, the ready availability of very highspeed broadband at reasonable prices should become a competitive plus for Vermont in attracting new residents and businesses and assuring that existing Vermonters and Vermont companies don't have to leave the state because of lack of cyber service.

These grants are for something called "middle mile" infrastructure in telecom jargon. Despite the jargon, this is infrastructure you care about and, arguably, what Vermont needs most. Here's why:

The modern Internet is based on the fantastic data-carrying capability of fiber optic cable. If we use the hackneyed metaphor that fiber is data's superhighway, then everything else is just an unpaved driveway. Driveways are fine for from our garages to the road; but we wouldn't want to go all the way to work or to the movies or shopping on a driveway. The places in Vermont which have poor or no Internet access available are generally places far away from the nearest fiber connection.

Cable connections to the Internet are reasonably fast for most users because cable companies run fiber to the neighborhoods they serve. The cablecos then use coaxial cable (doesn't matter what that is) to build driveways from the fiber to individual houses. Telephone companies usually have fiber in their central offices which are usually in the center of town; they use their copper wire as the "driveway" for DSL access. If you live too far from the central office, you live too far from the fiber and the copper driveway is too long and too much of an obstacle – no DSL for you. Wireless ISPs (WISPs) reach otherwise unreachable homes with radio; the radio connection makes a very good driveway over surprisingly long distances; but the WISPs often serve areas where there is not even fiber available at their base radio locations; so, although they are much better than dialup, they often can't provide the capacity we now need at affordable prices.

Building "middle mile" infrastructure simply means extending new fiber routes deep into Vermont towns and neighborhoods. The first customers of the new fiber funded by the grant program will be community anchor institutions like schools, hospitals, libraries, public safety locations, and government offices. Today, far too many of these institutions are on data dirt roads; within a couple of years, they'll be connected directly by fiber at a cost not significantly more than what they're paying for inferior access today. Most will have gigabyte access (a billion bits per second). This can be easily upgraded should they need more. Even with the speed our data-hunger grows, these institutions shouldn't have to worry about bandwidth for the next decade.

But, once the fiber is there in the neighborhood, businesses which need their own fiber connections will be able to have them built at low cost because fiber is already nearby. For example, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), which received a grant for over $33 million as part of a more than $48 million project, plans to serve 450 community anchor institutions with 773 new miles of fiber; but they also believe the project will be able to serve as many as 2500 businesses along the route.

OK, you say, but what about me? I'm still stuck with a choice of dialup or satellite; what's all this middle mile stuff mean to me? Turns out it should be a very good thing. Vermont Telephone Company, Inc (VTEL), which was awarded over $12 million as the federal part of a $17.6 million project, says that it plans not only to offer gigabyte access to 207 new community anchor institutions with 348 miles of new fiber at year three prices averaging $918/month but also to sell wholesale Internet access at $10/megabit/month. You're not going to buy wholesale Internet access, yourself; but the local ISP or WISP who wants to provide you service will finally have a decent "middle mile" connection they can afford. Currently some WISPs are paying as much as $200/megabit or more for very small amounts of bandwidth. Having fiber in the neighborhood will make all the difference in the world to them – and to you.

The VTA project, Vermont Fiber Link, is a public-private partnership with Sovernet Fiber Corp., which will own and operate the network. More data about this project is available at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants/applications/summaries/4245.pdf.

The VTEL project is called VT Broadband Enhanced Learning Link (VT BELL). More information at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants/applications/summaries/7508.pdf.




One of the themes of the executive response to Challenges for Change, Vermont's effort to deliver better government at a sustainable cost, is greatly increased use of the web for service delivery. Online forms and online information mean better service for those who are already used to shopping and information gathering online AND lower cost to the state. The Department of Information and Innovation (DII) has set up a fast response team so that the many of the forms which are the interface between the state and its clients can be implemented on the web quickly.

We need to be able to move at Internet speed; we should be able to get new forms online in a week or so after the need is identified. Moreover, these forms need to be part of what we call myVermont.gov, a single portal for interaction with the state which is smart enough to remember what you already told it. like your address. so that you don't have to start from scratch each time you find a new way to interact with the State online. And this development has to use the latest web technology to keep costs way, way down.

As a shakeout of the fast response unit and a demonstration to skeptics within state government that fast, cheap, good development is possible, I asked a week or so ago for two prototypes which we can demo. Here they are (but remember these are just prototypes):

https://secure.vermont.gov/TAX/registration/ is a prototype of the form that businesses will be able to use to register with the tax department. We do want new businesses and new taxpayers so we want to make registering easy. Note that myVermont.gov feature of using stored addresses.

http://rules.cms.vt.vprod.cdc.nicusa.com/ is a prototype of a site that we want to use to post new rules for comment. Today these are advertised in newspapers as they have been since just after the invention of the printing press. We think a searchable site which you can even subscribe to via email, RSS or twitter and on which you can post comments directly and read everybody else's comments is a better way to provide this service – it's also a lot cheaper.

Now on Kindle!

hackoff.com: An historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble

CEO Tom Evslin's insider account of the Internet bubble and its aftermath. "This novel is a surveillance video of the seeds of the current economic collapse."

The Interpreter's Tale

Hacker Dom Montain is in Barcelona in Evslin's Kindle-edition long short story. Why? and why are the pickpockets stealing mobile phones?

Need A Kindle?

Kindle: Amazon's Wireless Reading Device

Not quite as good as a real book IMHO but a lot lighter than a trip worth of books. Also better than a cell phone for mobile web access - and that's free!

Recent Reads - Click title to order from Amazon


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