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May 31, 2009

Broadband for EVERYbody

We used to think it was enough to make broadband accessible everywhere. That's no longer good enough. We now need to make sure that everyone actually has broadband in his or her residence and business. Everyone! (voluntary cave dweller excepted). Our goal in Vermont is to combine stimulus money with private investment and state bonding authority to move us quickly not only to 100% broadband availability but 100% broadband penetration.

The electrical system of tomorrow, the health care system of tomorrow, and the education system of today all depend on universal broadband penetration. Oh yeah, communication, commerce, and entertainment all need broadband too. So does e-government (coming soon) and research.

The electrical system of tomorrow will be smart. That means demand, supply, capacity, and outage data flow unimpeded and in near realtime from meters to utilities and back to consumers and generators. Much of this data flow is machines communicating with other machines. Some information flow is back to consumers both large and small so they can control their energy bills by using electricity when it's abundant and cheap and shunning or selling it back to the grid when it's rare and expensive. Taking advantage of the smart grid requires a broadband connection.

Part of e-health is electronic health records. Better information means better, cheaper, and less mistake-prone care. But we can't replace paper records with electronic ones until we can be sure that very doctor's office and place of treatment is online with enough bandwidth for bandwidth-hungry objects like x-rays. In the case of home health care, the place of treatment is the home. A home health worker needs the same access to medical records and the same ability to update them that a doctor or a hospital does. The home of the future will have health monitoring devices when needed. Homes need to be online for the delivery of health care.

When I was in school a million years ago I was taught to do research in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. That was then and this is now. Students need to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff on Google and wikipedia; their homework needs to be online just as mine was in the library. But a teacher can't responsibly give online homework to a class if even a small fraction of the students don't have the equipment and connections to get online when they go home. We can't reinvent pedagogy the way we need to until we know that all students have broadband connections – and that schools have scads of bandwidth

So everyone needs to be online. Geography can't be an obstacle but neither can poverty, lack of equipment, or lack of training.

The platform for SmartVermont – the Vermont we hope to build with stimulus money, State money and bonding authority, and private investment – is universal broadband penetration. The first application on that platform will be smart grid, e-health, and e-education. With lots of hard work, some luck, and our fair share of federal (our!) dollars, we can build that future for ourselves and our children.

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