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For rural internet access, a Venn diagram of doom

We must ensure that our regulations support reliable, affordable, essential communications infrastructure availability.

Laura H. Sibilia, an independent, represents the Windham-Bennington District (Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, and Whitingham) in the state House of Representatives.

West Dover

By the 1930s, “nearly 90 percent of U.S. urban dwellers had electricity, but 90 percent of rural homes were without power,” according to University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives.

“Investor-owned utilities often denied service to rural areas, citing high development costs and low profit margins. Consequently, even when they could purchase electricity, rural consumers paid far higher prices than urban consumers.”

Vermont has state-of-the-art communication technologies. We have cell service throughout much of our state and wireless internet solutions in areas where the topography works. We have middle-mile fiber, cable, and DSL that all connects residents and businesses to the global economy, to their doctors and to public safety and even provides phone service through VOIP (voice-over-internet protocols).

Modern life is possible in much of Vermont. Still, it’s no secret that access to wired and wireless phone and internet is unevenly available in the Green Mountain state.

What may not be as widely known is that in some of the most rural parts of Vermont, this situation is not static — it’s deteriorating.

We have a negative relationship of conditions — a Venn Diagram of Doom, if you will.

* * *

An early-morning call from one of my constituents this summer drove this point home.

She lives in a community that is almost exclusively limited to dial-up or satellite for internet. Sadly, VTel’s federal-taxpayer-funded wireless network is still not available in her town. The only cell service in her town, CoverageCo’s limited 2G, is non-operational and has been for some time.

She recently had serious surgery and is also handicapped. It takes over 30 minutes to get the Vermont State Police to her town and at least 30 minutes for an ambulance, assuming a volunteer and driver are able to respond immediately. The hospitals are 30 minutes away (when the roads are open, not closed with snow, accidents, or washed out).

My constituent called because her landline phone line was not working and it would take longer than a week for repair. That delay had her worried for her safety.

This summer, I received an unusually high number of complaints about phone-service repairs and installations. A corresponding increase in complaints about repair times have also come to the Public Utility Commission, which regulates landline telephone service and other public utilities like electricity.

It would not surprise me to see an investigation opened and action taken against the rural landline telephone provider. The irony here is the regulated landline telephone provider is the only provider required to supply service to those Vermonters who reside at the intersection in the Venn Diagram of Doom — the place where no cell service, no internet service, and long distances from emergency response and emergency health-care meet.

* * *

Vermont — and all other states — have limited ability to regulate the build-out of wireless (cell service) and wired internet (cable) due to federal preemption.

These for-profit providers compete in an extremely dynamic marketplace, with rapidly innovating technologies, in Vermont’s densely populated areas.

They compete with one another, and they also compete with the regulated telephone providers that must provide service and repairs of critical infrastructure to all Vermonters, not just those from whom they can make a profit selling a high-end product.

Guess which type of provider is losing landline customers in the easy — and cost-effective-to-provide-service-to — densely populated service areas?

Guess which provider still has to provide essential telephone service even when it loses landline customers?

Guess which provider Vermont can penalize for poor service or lack of coverage?

* * *

This declining situation is not acceptable. The time for patiently waiting for this situation to improve has passed.

My colleagues in the Legislature have heard me declare more then once that we aren’t just going to roll up rural Vermont and put it away — real people, families, students, and businesses live there. Real businesses and towns are unable to participate in Vermont’s economy and services. We have allowed a situation to develop that is increasing risk and vulnerability in rural Vermont.

Concerns about vulnerable rural Vermonters’ landline access have been communicated to the Department of Public Service. An RFP to find a provider to replace the CoverageCo cell service has recently been released — which is important to many towns and schools in our district.

These short-term actions will help. But going forward, we need a shift in how we think about telecommunications access and the market for such products and about who is responsible for ensuring critical infrastructure is accessible everywhere in our state.

We are going to need to develop a plan for empowering communities or regions to manage and finance connectivity expansions. In each of the last two bienniums, the House has overwhelmingly passed funding measures to address parts of this challenge; we will need our Senate colleagues to join us in this next biennium.

In the administration, we need the DPS to have more resources and partners trying to solve this issue that touches on public safety, education, health-care access, and the economy.

As a state, and with our private-sector providers, Vermont must take a long, hard look at the regulatory structures that have produced this outcome — and we must ensure our regulatory environment going forward supports reliable, affordable essential communications infrastructure availability for all Vermonters.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #475 (Wednesday, September 5, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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