by Randolph T. Holhut
August 6, 2010
THE WAR AGAINST SECRETS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's a simple fact of life that fast and reliable Internet service is indispensable in a country that wants to continue enjoying a high standard of living.
And the United States has fallen far behind other industrial countries in providing it.
It is especially shameful that many Vermonters do not have access to high-speed Internet, and are instead trapped with inefficient and expensive satellite systems.
When the state allowed FairPoint to buy Verizon's landline business in Vermont, the company promised it would have the state wired by 2010. Then it went bankrupt.
Now it is again doing some wiring, but it won't ever reach "the last mile" - those who live in very rural areas. It's just too darned expensive for them.
There's a striking similarity between wiring the state of Vermont for fiber optics and what happened in 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
It was part of an economic package designed to stimulate an economy deep in the grips of the Great Depression. The Rural Electrification Act followed in 1936; funding for rural electricity became a reality.
Remember, by the 1920s, electricity was nothing new in cities. But only 10 percent of rural America had access before Roosevelt signed that executive order.
Why? Because privately-owned electric companies couldn't see any profit in stringing power lines deep into the hills and valleys. Too darn expensive. That's when the federal government stepped in and made sure that America got wired.
No more kerosene lanterns. No more reading by candlelight. No more pumping water by hand. No more washing clothes in cold water, running them through a ringer and then hanging them on a line. No more ice blocks to keep food reasonably fresh - until the blocks melted. No more throwing wood on the fire to try and keep warm in winter.
Feudal living ended. The modern world burst through the farmhouse door.
And by 1950, 90 percent of American farms had electricity.
In extremely rural Vermont, eight local companies merged in 1929 to form Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS).
Eventually, more than 100 companies and cooperatives merged into CVPS, which started with fewer than 20,000 customers scattered across the state and worked hard to string over 500 miles of lines between 1929 and 1939.
Even so, much of Vermont was without power until after World War II. Believe it or not, two towns, Victory and Granby, in the state's Northeast Kingdom, didn't receive electrical service until 1963.
But because we didn't want to leave anyone behind, everyone eventually benefitted.
Once again we are blessed with a life-changing technology. Once again the for-profit companies say it's too darned expensive to wire the woods.
Recently, the government woke up and stepped in.
Two federal stimulus grants, totaling about $46 million, have just been awarded to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority and the Vermont Telephone Co. The money will be used to expand broadband connections to more than 500 schools, hospitals and other large institutions around Vermont. Once these places are wired, residents will be able to tap into the new infrastructure.
At the same time, the state is planning to place a fiber optic cable along the length of Vermont's Interstate highways, beginning with 14 miles from Sharon on I-89 to Hartford on I-91. It's part of the state Agency of Transportation's communications plan, not a piece of the state's overall broadband expansion project. But it will still provide future infrastructure.
When all these plans are completed, about 95 percent of Vermonters will have high-speed Internet access.
So what about the last 5 percent? The last mile? (In the interest of full disclosure, this includes me.) The state is predicted to have a budget shortfall of $153 million in fiscal year 2012. Why spend money getting me a faster Internet connection?
Some would argue that the state should not. Some would argue that government has no place in building infrastructure. (These are the same people who use the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System to travel to Montpelier to protest big government.) Some would say, "Let her eat cake."
But Tom Evslin, the state's chief technology officer, says wiring the last 5 percent is crucial for three reasons:
First, the quiet and beauty of the woods are enticing to people who work from home. "Who's going to open a new business in a place where they can't go online?" he says.
Second, schools must teach up-to-date technology, and if the kids can't do their homework at home, why would any parent move here?
And third, to save money, the government must start providing many of its services online. Legally, everyone must have access to these services.
But the real reason is true democracy. Why should some people live a technologically feudal life while their neighbors thrive?
We're a small state and we can't afford to leave anybody behind. "All for one and one for all," as the Three Musketeers said.
"You know the old saying about how it's better to teach a man to fish than to buy him fish sticks?" Evslin said. "Well, especially when times are tough, we need to make sure Vermonters can fish for opportunity online - all of us."
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist who works from home. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.