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November 23, 2006

Why Good Broadband Matters

A friend asked me why I’ve been working with the Governor’s Telecom Advisory Council on better broadband for Vermont.  “Isn’t it going to happen anyway?” she asked.  “Isn’t it already happening?  Aren’t there private sector solutions?”

These are questions everyone should ask any time that government gets involved in anything.

The short answer is that it is critically important whether we are behind the curve or ahead of the curve.  If we are behind, our children are disadvantaged and eventually seek opportunity elsewhere; our businesses are disadvantaged; and we can’t lower the cost of government.  If we are ahead, our children are advantaged (and can take advantage here or elsewhere); other people’s children come here for opportunity; our businesses have competitive advantage; and we can use the latest technologies in the public sector.

(BTW, everything I’m writing about Vermont applies to the US as a whole.  We as a country are behind most of the rest of the developed world and some of the developing world in broadband deployment.)

Yes.  Broadband will “happen anyway”.  Most people in Vermont cities and many village centers do have broadband.  Many of these even have a choice between cableco provided and telco provided access.  Moreover, those who live in rural areas served by local Vermont carriers like Waitsfield Champlain Valley Telecom do have broadband availability.  Wireless ISPs (WISPs) are helping to serve the unserved donuts around the village centers.

But universal broadband availability in Vermont is not happening fast enough.  Until broadband access is nearly universally available, much of Vermont is stuck in a narrow band world.

For example: schools should be giving homework which requires accessing the Internet so that students will master the information source that will be critical for the rest of their lives (or until something better comes along).  But how can a teacher give such assignments in good conscience if half or even a quarter of the students in the class don’t have good Internet access?  The result is that all the students suffer because some can’t get broadband.

Another example: health care delivery can be improved through the Internet.  Home-bound patients can be monitored online (don’t try this on dialup).  Information can be disseminated; insurance reimbursement simplified; appointments made.  But the investment that health care institutions can make in online care are limited when they know they will also have to maintain a parallel system for those who can’t get online.

Strapped town governments could save money and deliver better services if they could rely on their citizens having broadband access.  But they can’t.

Vermont has to complete in a national economy.  Even for those whose jobs aren’t remotely technical, broadband access is becoming a necessity.  New businesses won’t locate where they can’t get broadband even though the rural areas of Vermont offer many other advantages.

Why broadband?  Everyone can get dialup access if they need it.  Five years ago no one had broadband access at home; so why is it a necessity now?

Another good question.

Five years ago consumers websites and Internet services were built  for users who accessed them through dialup. None of us sent ten megabyte emails because our connections were too slow.  Google hadn’t become a necessary information utility at home because it took too long to dialup and get connected just to get one simple answer.

Now that a critical mass of Americans have broadband and are connected all the time, web services are built for broadband users.  If you try to access sites like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or myspace on a dialup connection, you’ll be drumming your fingers in impatient frustration; the web pages are too big and too complex for dialup.  Forget about youtube on dialup – or all the sites that are imbedding video.  Now our friends send us video and huge picture files; we need to be able to download them and send them ourselves.  New services like VoIP require broadband connections.  Home monitoring and health monitoring require persistent connections.

Innovation actually consists of small steps which launch from new circumstances.  Think of the waves of innovation which happened when water power was harnessed, when the railroads were invented, when the country electrified.  The rub is that the innovation occurs where the new technologies are deployed as a springboard, not in the places which are still struggling to get electrified, to get a rail spur, or to get broadband Internet access.  We want Vermont to be a place where innovation happens.

What we need depends on what everybody else has.  A century OK no one needed a car or a telephone.  Today we need them.  We also need broadband everywhere and anywhere in Vermont.  We are as a state a broadband laggard in a country which is also a laggard; not good enough!

Will the Governor’s Council help?

Too soon to know.  It’s made a good start at identifying key issues for the upcoming legislative session and teasing out obstacles to broadband deployment which can be cured by administrative action.  It’s been a catalyst for WISPs coming together, sharing experience, and talking with state and local officials.

It’s an effort worth making.

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