Internet access: We’re shooting behind a moving target

Note: This post cited incorrect FCC information. Please read the following post for an update.

Ever since he became Governor, Peter Shumlin has put a high priority on providing high-speed Internet access to everyone in Vermont:

In early January 2011, Shumlin created Connect VT, “an ambitious plan to deliver broadband and cell service to every corner of Vermont,” he said soon after in his State of the State address.

His initial promises were overly optimistic; reaching every nook and cranny of a sparsely-populated, rugged state is a tough task. But in late 2013, Shumlin was able to announce that over 99% of Vermont residences had high-speed Internet.

Hooray, right?

Perhaps not. The Federal Communications Commission tells a completely different story. When you look at the FCC’s state-by-state data for broadband Internet access, Vermont ranks 49th in the nation with 80% of our people lacking broadband. Only Montana is worse, at 87%.

No other state has more than 60% unconnected, and only three others are in the 50s — Arkansas, West Virginia, and Idaho.

So how can the Governor claim 99% high-speed Internet access, while the federal government puts us at a measly 20%?

The secret is how you define “high-speed Internet access.”

The administration defines “broadband” as 768 kilobytes/second for downloads, and 200 kilobytes/second for uploads. The FCC definition, on the other hand, is 25 megabytes/second download and 3 megabytes/second upload.

That’s, um, quite a difference. The administration is using a standard that the FCC abandoned in 2010, and has since upgraded three times to the present 25/3. And we all know how long five years is in Internet time. As FCC Chair Tom Wheeler says:

“High-speed Internet access has become fundamental to modern life, whether we are on the job,
at home, or going to school. Broadband connectivity can overcome geographic isolation and put
a world of information and economic opportunity at the fingertips of citizens in even the most
remote communities.”

Like, say, most of Vermont.

I first learned of this on Saturday, when I had a nice long chat with the $100,000 Kid, Brandon Riker, Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor. He puts economic development at the top of his issue list, and he sees a lack of true broadband access as a major impediment, especially in rural areas.

Riker would like to see Vermont offer tax incentives for next-generation Internet technologies that don’t depend on wires or cables. He’s talking large-area wi-fi for small communities, and repeater towers that can “leapfrog” into isolated communities. “People want to live here,” he asserts. “We have to expand opportunities beyond the Chittenden County area.”

But wait, you might be thinking. The big cities and the flat states don’t have the barriers we do. We can’t be expected to offer the same kind of Internet access, can we?

Actually, yes we can. States with challenges similar to Vermont’s — sparse population, unforgiving topography — fare a whole lot better than we do. Only 38% of Alaskans don’t have 25/3 MB Internet. In Wyoming and New Mexico, it’s 30%. South Dakota: 19%. North Dakota: 15%. In Utah, for God’s sake, only 5% of residents lack broadband access. (All those states except Utah have lower population densities than Vermont. And most of them have difficult terrain.)

If they can do it, why not us? And why is our stated goal five years out of date and way, way slower than the current standard?

I don’t know if Riker’s idea is the best option. But clearly, Vermont has to step up its Internet game. And the Shumlin administration should stop trying to cloud the issue with outdated standards.

Postscript. For those who question whether we need economic development, the answer is “yes, we do.” We don’t need indiscriminate proliferation of subdivisions and strip malls; but we do need more activity and more opportunities outside of Burlington’s orbit. Our small communities and rural areas are in serious decline. They need intelligent growth that doesn’t put undue strain on the environment.


3 thoughts on “Internet access: We’re shooting behind a moving target

  1. Ken Horseman

    Having just retired after 16 years in the Vermont Department of Economic Development most recently in the role of Senior Economic Development Specialist, I can tell you there is no clear economic development plan — even though the administration will point to the recent CEDS (Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy) document. Furthermore, across state government resources are NOT aligned to deliver services so badly needed by Vermont businesses. Very sad.

  2. Cynthia Browning

    You might want to check out some of EC Fiber’s initiatives. They have proposed extending fiber networks among the schools in rural areas. This would facilitate coordination and shared teaching between those schools. It would also allow spurs off the fiber at the school into the rest of the town and surrounding area, providing better internet access to support economic activity. My understanding is that fiber is more reliable than wireless. You could check with Rep. Jim Masland of Thetford about this. Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

  3. jlpen

    Right on target. Worse: Shumlin’s administration took federal stimulus funds for expansion of broadband, and gave most of it to Fairpoint, some to VTEL — totally scrapped the applications of EC Fiber and other municipal, nonprofit networks, that were actually committed to getting the job done, and would be accountable to taxpayers (without, however, costing a penny to taxpayers, only to subscribers). The significance of this is that Vermont can’t regulate interstate ISPs, when they don’t deliver the promised speeds; and under federal rules, they are allowed to get away with being within “80 percent” of the minimum speed for broadband, and still not be in violation of their contracts with consumers. So the PSB told me, when I filed a complaint over Fairpoint. Technically on Shumlin’s map I am “up to speed,” and that is a joke, even by the FCC’s old definition of broadband. (Not to mention how many times a day it just conks out altogether.) And I’m in a populated area — I shudder to imagine what it’s like in the NEK.

    Riker may be right, speaking technologically. But a big problem in moving to wireless is that we, the public, have no voice in the location of these towers, and our ISPs are more interested in siting them for maximum profit than for public need (and with complete indifference to local impact). A true progressive candidate for governor or lieutenant governor should, IMHO, make developing a wireless, statewide high-speed internet a priority with a plan to give clout to communities in siting the towers, something along the lines of the way the state highway folks operate in holding local hearings for design review of major projects that will impact towns, in terms of timing, detours, etc. And that candidate should be open to awarding contracts to municipal, nonprofit providers. Keep the jobs, and the money, in Vermont, and encourage the growth of ISPs who will be accountable to us, not to the one percent.


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