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.
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
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.