We get those concerns. DSL, while certainly a better option than dial-up internet or no service at all, seems like a Band-Aid at best. As resident Phil Edelstein said at the meeting, it’s like “putting bald tires on an old vehicle.”
Why go through the effort for something that really won’t meet the long-term needs of residents? No doubt there are many frustrated residents in any number of rural areas around the region, as internet service providers and cell phone companies build out their networks at a glacial pace. No doubt it’s a matter of economics, or perhaps marketing. According to Edelstein, Vermont Telephone Company has wireless service available in the area, but not many people know about it.
What should be equally frustrating is that here we are, 15 years after one former governor, Jim Douglas, promised to provide internet service to all areas of Vermont by 2009, and three years after his predecessor, Peter Shumlin, declared that “essentially all of Vermont” had access to high-speed internet. The reality is that many rural areas still don’t have a robust, affordable network that will serve them into the next decade.
That lack of true high speed service is what led Sen. Dick Sears to declare those rural areas of southern Vermont the “forgotten kingdom.” Unfortunately, that description still holds today, 15 years later, and it obviously is frustrating to many.
In fact, the lack of high-speed network build-out is still a can to be kicked down the road. Vermont’s latest telecommuncations plan, developed in 2014, sets a deadline of 2024 for fiber to every home. That’s not what we call an urgent plan of action. But it does accept the reality that most telecommunications companies don’t have enough financial incentives to invest millions for infrastructure in rural areas where they will see little or no return on their investments, even with government subsidies.
Honestly, there probably isn’t one solution to solve every community’s lack of access. Is the VTel wireless network the answer anymore than FairPoint DSL is? How about satellite internet service? Or cellular networks? We don’t know what the best solution is, because every situation is a little different.
In so many ways it depends on the needs of the end user. Just checking email, surfing websites or watching the occasional video? DSL or wireless will most likely meet or even exceed those needs. Streaming hours of media to three or four devices in a single household? Fiber or cable are the only solutions that will meet those heavy loads.
The one thing that does seem to get results is when rural communities become engaged with business leaders and politicians. Towns need to urge area providers to be constantly upgrading or extending their services. Whether through paid staff, a committee or at a board level, it seems the best way to expand service is to be vocal and steady, applying for grants when available or finding ways to nudge private companies to expand for the public good. Without pressure from municipalities and consumers, providers are under little scrutiny to do something. When they do resolve to expand their systems, they might as well choose to work with the town that’s making the most noise.
As for local and state leaders, it is once again time to remember the needs of the forgotten kingdom. Rural areas must be brought into the 21st century. Modern, affordable cellular and internet service must be made available to all of Vermont’s nooks, crannies, gores, and valleys, and it needs to be sooner rather than later.