PO Box 934, Williston, VT 05495
The Perfect and the Good, at War
As the hardships that many Vermonters are enduring from the economic shutdown become clear, so too are some of the policy failures that are exacerbating the suffering. One of them is the state’s decades-long inability to provide broadband access to remote areas of Vermont, and that failure is having a disproportionate impact on Vermont’s children and low-income families.
The challenge is not, as they say, rocket science. Reaching the remote corners of the state – the last mile, in telecom parlance – would require significant state and federal funding, as well as partnerships with existing providers and reasonable goals as to what qualifies for adequate service. Although the state has spent millions on broadband, it has not come close to meeting its goals.
The state set up the now-defunct Vermont Telecommunications Authority in 2007 with a goal of solving the problem by 2010. The VTA inexplicably spent millions of dollars on so-called “middle mile” fiber to schools and other institutions, rather than homes, to compete with existing providers. It failed to expand access for rural residents.
At the same time, a dogma took hold in the legislature that only investments in fiber optic cable (rather than copper lines, which serve the furthest reaches of the state) are worthwhile. Existing telecom providers cannot afford to invest in high-priced fiber in remote areas with few customers, so the legislature has pinned its hopes on small, thinly-capitalized and often volunteer-run organizations to build out fiber-to-the-home. Those organizations, not surprisingly, have made barely a dent in reaching unserved Vermonters.
Acting on the view that only lightning-fast speeds are worthy of state money, the legislature has significantly ratcheted up the minimum required broadband speeds for companies to receive state funding. Under legislation passed last year, the minimum required speed is now 25/3 Mbps – a speed higher than most consumers are willing to pay for. To receive funds under a new loan program operated by the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the legislature required speeds of 100 Mpbs symmetrical – in essence, the speed of fiber. The legislature also has adopted a policy goal that all Vermonters have access to 100 Mbps by 2024. That would cost an estimated $1 billion. For comparison purposes, this article is being written with an Internet speed of 10/1 Mpbs over, gasp, wireline service, with three adults working on-line simultaneously.
There are about 20,000 residences in Vermont that still have inadequate broadband service, meaning 4/1 speeds or less. (Many with only dial-up service). Most of those households would likely be thrilled to have broadband speeds that are a fraction of the state’s fiber goal. For now though, the children in those homes are facing months without any meaningful access to education, while their parents have little or no ability to work remotely.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature’s cult-like focus on fiber-to-the-home was merely puzzling. Vermonters are now experiencing real hardship as a result of a policy that sets a gold standard for all, rather than an affordable and workable standard for those who need state help. The pursuit of perfect Internet access has been the enemy of the good, with failure a close ally of perfection.
Warren Buffet famously said, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.“ The legislature has been swimming naked, with the public largely unable to see the hardships that were growing due to the failure to expand broadband coverage. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the tide out and laid bare those hardships for all to see.
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