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January 08, 2007

Vermont, The First E-State – First Reactions

There’s been lots of reaction to Governor Jim Douglas announcement last Thursday that Vermont will become the first e-state in the US by assuring that, in 2010, anywhere you open a laptop or use a cellphone in Vermont you’ll get connectivity.  Most of the comment has been favorable, some skeptical, some critical, and some ill-informed.

Three experienced communications people had good things to say:

Jeff Pulver, a very successful VoIP pioneer and now a video on the Net pioneer:  “For the past few years, I’ve looked to Iceland as the place people who had a business idea which involved ‘living in an always-on world’ should locate their businesses. Looks like I soon will have to look no further than Vermont.

“As the vision of Vermont Governor Jim Douglas becomes a reality, I expect that in a few years, Vermont will become home to an amazing cottage industry of hi-tech companies.

“Vermont is now my favorite State. :)”

Gordon Cook, author of the influential COOK Report on Internet Protocol: “It is so FANTASTIC to see some good news…some vision some leadership!”

Super Internet equity analyst and consultant Michael Parekh: “Pretty powerful stuff, as and when this is fully implemented.”

Carlo on TechDirt headlines his post: “Vermont's Muni Broadband Plan Sounds Half Right”. He agrees with the concept of government helping to fund basic infrastructure but thinks the expenditure should be tilted towards fiber: “It's not a lack of towers that holds mobile coverage back, it's the low return on other capital costs and operating expenses for operators in sparsely populated areas.” 

Actually, some money may be spent on backbone fiber but fiber to the home isn’t gonna work in rural areas nearly soon enough and fiber isn’t gonna provide the last mile for roaming access. Putting long term capital raised through government bonding into towers reduces the capital cost to WISPs and mobile operators, who then only need to provide radios from their capital budgets.

David Usher, a Vermont based consultant, posts: “…keep in mind there is a contingent of folks in Vermont who would prefer that growth and economic expansion were not enabled. How else to explain Vermont's Byzantine permitting process for development in general. I fear Jim Douglas' proposal to change the permit process is in for some tough sledding with that contingent and from the NIMBYs generally.”

David’s right; this could be a problem.  In general, Vermonters have done a good job of balancing environmental concerns and economic development but not always.  There is NO environmentally more responsible way to open the rural areas of Vermont to needed economic development than through communications technology in general and wireless technology in particular.

Initially, there seems to be bipartisan understanding of both the low environmental impact and the high public need by legislators I’ve seen commenting publicly.  The plan and schedule do require, as the Governor said, “a series of responsible modifications to Vermont’s permitting laws that will balance our environmental values with the need to move rapidly.”

A number of people, some in comments on the TechDirt post cited above, have divided the size of the state by the square miles a tower can cover and decided that $40,000,000 isn’t enough money.  Their math is right but their premises and conclusions are wrong.  Vermont DOES have many towers already.  Other towers are being and will be built purely with privately-raised money.  The immediate problem is the areas that are badly underserved and where the return on an investment like a tower is longer than many operators can afford.  This is the gap the governor’s program will fill.  Moreover, the state already owns property, right-of-way, and structures – all of which help cut the cost and impact of building towers where they’re needed.

It’s my guess that we’ll also see many gaps in coverage filled by low cost solutions like the antenna local WISP Power Shift Online has on our roof in Stowe to serve the hollow where we live.

The Burlington Free Press quotes Richard Enright, director of engineering for Verizon Wireless in New England, as pointing out that no state has complete cell coverage and that “Parts of Vermont pose a challenge to providers because of its sparse population and mountains…” The Governor did say we were going to be first so he’s probably aware that no other state has done this.  This quote actually provides an interesting insight into the thinking of traditional providers and part of the reason why it IS necessary for the state to have a role here.

A number of other commenters have also pointed out that we have hills that radio beams don’t go through very well.  Duly noted.  Of course, a antenna which is part way up a hill sees more territory than one sitting in a flat field – or can be much less tall.  I previously posted about the ingenious Vermont WISP GlobalNet who bought space on an antenna on a hillside behind Plattsburgh, NY from which they can see and service a substantial part of the Northwest coast of Vermont on the other side of Lake Champlain.

It will be hard to achieve the ambitious goal Jim Douglas set out.  Being first is always hard.  Stuff’s gotta be done that was never done before.  Solutions have to be invented; obstacles overcome.  Followers’ll have an easier time.  But followers won’t have the advantage of being first. 

Vermont’s commitment to both environmental quality and economic development position us well to demonstrate how both CAN be achieved.  We will benefit by having great communications in a beautiful environment and will create jobs by building, using, and exporting features of the country’s first e-state.

Note: I am speaking for no one but me in this post.

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