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February 26, 2007

E-State Testimony

Statehouse

This Thursday, March 1, at 11AM I’ll be testifying before the Vermont House Commerce Committee at the State House in Montpelier on H.248, the bill that can make Vermont the first e-state in the nation.  I’m a volunteer advisor to Vermont Administration Secretary Mike Smith on this issue; but I’ve been invited to testify as a local expert – albeit one with a strong point of view.

It’s been a long time since I last testified under the gold dome topped with a statue of Ceres, the grain goddess.  I used to be a frequent visitor when I was Secretary of Transportation in Vermont way back in 1981 and 1982. Was talking about infrastructure then, too, but couldn’t use PowerPoint.  Not sure how much else has changed since then but do know that the legislature still functions with almost no staff (they have hired an consultant to help them on this issue, however).

Readers of Fractals of Change won’t be surprised by anything I say Thursday.

First point will be how critical it is that all Vermonters have the opportunity to get adequate and affordable broadband access very soon (by 2010 at the latest).  Satellite doesn’t count.  Basic DSL won’t be adequate for long.  Adequate access means upload as well as download speed.  Adequate access means roaming access as well as access at home or work.  And cell phones ought to work everywhere in the state.  I don’t think any of that’ll be a hard sell; the legislators I’ve already spoken to are both personally aware of the need and have heard from their constituents.

Second point: it’s appropriate for Vermont state government to be involved in building some of the infrastructure which will assure that this access is available everywhere in the State.  Major carriers and cable companies have cherry-picked Vermont as far as investing in modern plant here.  This has resulted in village and town cores with DSL and cable available (except in some parts of the State where even this hasn’t happened) and a donut of unserved residences around each village.  It’s difficult to start a business to serve just the sparsely-settled donut although some Vermont companies have managed to do so.  Assuring that everyone has access to technology which has gone from being a luxury to being a necessity is similar to government involvement in railroads, roads, rural power, and telephone line extension in previous generations.  It’s extremely important to make sure there is no minority left behind as society undergoes a technology tipping point.

Third:  it is appropriate to be bold. The Governor could have proposed a program in which Vermont just caught up with the rest of the nation faster than it is.  Instead, he proposed that we move quickly enough to take the lead and, despite being rural, be the first state with universal availability of access, the first e-state (see yesterday’s NYTimes article on lack of broadband in rural parts of rich Connecticut – hat tip to Brad Feld).  There are obviously sound economic development reasons for being first rather than an also ran. That goal should help in attracting the private capital which we believe will enhance the $40 million of bonding authority requested in H.248.   It’s also extremely important to those who are educated here.

Fourth:  a mix of building towers for radio and laying fiber where it’s needed is the best strategy for the speed of deployment we need and the most future-proof and the most appropriate use for money the State borrows.  Towers and backbone fiber have a long asset life.  Radios which go on towers and the other equipment which is and will be used to bring access the last mile to the home is changing rapidly and is a more appropriate investment for private operators and even towns and cities which may want to be in the last mile business. 

The State shouldn’t be in the business of picking technology winners or even determining what the last-mile business model will be.  H.248 enables the State to invest in basic infrastructure with a long payback.  Having this infrastructure in place should make it possible for multiple providers to meet last mile needs.  H.248, BTW, also makes it easier for Vermont towns to provide communications services and to finance them if that’s what they want to do. 

No telling what else I’ll say since I’m sure it’s still a good idea to speechify little and be prepared to answer questions.

Also testifying at some point to the committee will be other local experts including Tim Nulty of Burlington Telecom who’s done a great job bringing fiber to many businesses and residences in that city and will hopefully be able to do the same in other parts of the State.  Not sure when he’s on, though.

If you’re a Vermonter, you probably already know that hearings in the State House are open but it’s the legislators (appropriately) who get to ask the questions.  I’ll stick around for a while after the hearing, though, so feel free to ask me questions then or tell me what you think if you’re in town.

Comments on this post are welcome as well.  Special thanks to anyone who points out a hole in my logic or strengthens my points BEFORE Thursday.

Previous e-state posts:

Fractals of Change: Vermont, The First E-State

Fractals of Change: What’s an E-state?

Fractals of Change: More on Vermont, The First E-State

Fractals of Change: Vermont, The First E-State – First Reactions

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