Guest editorial: Broadband: A national imperative
A few years back, I remember attending an author event at Bixby Library in Vergennes. It was after hours and the library was closed except to guests.
As I entered, I passed a cluster of young kids dressed against the cold huddling on the granite steps in front of the library. I inquired of my host why they were there. “We leave our WiFi on for them,” he responded. “They don’t have it at school and come here to use ours.”
Today, the pandemic is exposing Vermont’s endemic problems, accelerating some into full-blown crises, the latest of which is the state and federal failure to meet the challenge of inequitable broadband deployment, which, at present, is driven by return-on-investment as measured by population density and capacity to pay – or privilege.
As Covid-prevention policies have limited the ability of our public schools and colleges to open their doors this fall, our dependency on “last mile” broadband service is, in fact, a national crisis. A student who can neither access online learning nor attend school is essentially denied the constitutional guarantee of a free public education; and few parents in the Covid economy have the time to homeschool.
Starting early in the last century, several administrations rose to respond to the social and economic need to rapidly deploy new technology that promised to significantly advance the nation’s social fabric, economy, culture, and security.
The Roosevelt administration’s 1936 Rural Electrification Act provided for and funded “last mile” electrification of rural areas around the U.S. by providing financial support to rural electric cooperatives.
I remember the last of the remote hill farms in Lamoille County being wired up and some farmers wrestling with the phenomenon of “stray voltage” that drove their cows mad and damaged many herds. The problem was soon resolved, however, with improved wiring and grounding systems. There was light in the barn and the farmhouse.
In 1907, AT&T President Theodore Vail, whose Lyndon, VT, summer home is today the campus of Northern University, defined and committed to “universal service” in exchange for a federal grant of monopoly. His “regulated monopoly” lasted 70 years until AT&T’s breakup in 1984.
The Communications Act of 1934 enabled a "natural monopoly," the Bell System, to provide long-distance service and most local telephone service under heavy price, profit, and investment regulation. The public-interest tradeoff was higher long-distance prices and lower local service prices, with rapid expansion of basic telephone service as a goal, particularly in more rural high-cost areas like Vermont. As children, we were forbidden to call neighboring towns because of the prohibitive cost. When I went away to school in New Hampshire, I was only allowed to call home once a month.
In 1979, Bell Atlantic still had 35,000 party lines in Vermont. In 1972, my brother and I started Philo Records in Saul Douglas’s former pig barn in Monkton. A customer of the Charlotte Telephone Co., our small startup business was on a four-party line. The barn was in Monkton, had a Charlotte phone number, and received mail in North Ferrisburgh. Our ring was two longs and not everyone congregating in the barn knew our unique ring – a source of continuous frustration to neighbors who shared our line.
During the Eisenhower administration in 1956, the patchwork of rural and state roads was deemed inadequate to support interstate travel, transport, and defense deployments, and construction began on the Interstate Highway System to weave the country together.
There have been various attempts within the Vermont business, regulatory, philanthropic, and telecommunications communities to address the challenge of ubiquitous broadband in Vermont. But, so far, the reality remains discouraging, depending heavily on one’s definition of “broadband access.” Although a significant amount of fiber has been installed here, the “last mile” connectivity remains a steep investment challenge.
The latest in-state effort is to plan the build-out to resemble municipal light and power authorities, using broadband districts or communications union districts (CUDs). But consider, how does a small, mountainous, low population-density state with a limited tax-base pay for and mount a major effort to bring all Vermonters online within months. Is this not the same for most of our 50 states?
If free public education is indeed a constitutional right and the only educational resource for many Vermont children (and adults) is online, do we not see an ethical and legal imperative to make this happen?
In healthcare: if hospitals must close their doors to all but emergency patients or Covid victims and rely on telemedicine for diagnosis and treatment, what are the implications for those with no broadband?
With the advent of rail, electricity, telephony, broadcast, and highways, a sense of national community prevailed. The President and Congress once shared a vision for American opportunity and acted together to fund and deploy new technologies for the common good.
But with last-mile broadband, we’ve dithered, as if our nation’s national leaders see no “common benefit.” Tyler Cooper, Editor-in-Chief at BroadbandNow says: “I think unfortunately we’re paying the price for dragging our feet over the past decade when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the developed world.”
When my wife, Kate, first moved to Vermont in 1996, she was manager of news polling at Prodigy Communications, which required her to have reasonable Internet access. Twenty-four years ago, Waitsfield Telecom, our service provider, installed a bright card nearby and, voila, she had an early form of DSL service that enabled her to work from her new home. Our rural home is now wired for fiber optic and our granddaughter attends her Brooklyn school daily from here. But then we live in Chittenden County.
If broadband is merely a business product and not a fundamental utility for advancing Americans’ opportunity and security, then deployment will continue to depend on return-on-investment, population density, and consumer capacity to pay (privilege.) Will any business build out a fiber network in Stannard, Jamaica, or Wolcott?
With education, telemedicine, business communications, entertainment, and social interaction all increasingly dependent on broadband access, where’s the leadership that understands the moral, social, and economic imperative to build out an affordable network to every home in the land?
Note: Bill Schubart is a Vermont columnist and entrepreneur.