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Voices / Column

On the broadbandwagon

‘As the internet grows, bandwidth must, too. And that has not happened in my neck of the woods, despite promises from each new telecommunications company that buys out the last’

Columnist Deborah Lee Luskin is the Newfane town moderator.

Newfane

The Remote Worker Program went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. It’s a program to attract new, younger workers by bribing those who work remotely to move to Vermont.

But I wonder how even techno-whizzes will be able to perform their work without high-speed broadband internet. In addition to an influx of youthful residents, Vermont needs better broadband.

According to the Feb. 1 Vermont League of Cities and Towns Legislative Report, at least 6 percent of Vermonters lack access to basic broadband services; more than a quarter of Vermonters lack broadband that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband; and only 13 percent of Vermont addresses have broadband at the state’s goal of 100/100 Mbps download/upload by 2024.

And I bet those 13 percent all live between Burlington and Montpelier.

Those of us who live away from the Queen City and the Capitol are left to plod along at horse-and-buggy speed, which leaves us plenty of time to admire the view of the spinning wheel of the internet on our computer screens.

It’s possible that more of us outside the Burlington-Montpelier corridor are older Vermonters who no longer run an eight-minute mile, but we can still compete on a keyboard on a level playing field. And not everybody wants to live mid-state.

* * *

I’ve lived in the West River Valley north of Brattleboro for 35 years. In that time, I’ve experienced many telecommunications upgrades.

I’ve also lost but don’t miss some charm that’s fallen by the wayside: listening in on a party line; dialing neighbors using just four digits; speaking to an operator in order to complete a long-distance call.

When cell phones first became widespread, I discovered I needed one outside of Vermont, even though they were useless once back home. A friend visiting from away put it succinctly: “Vermont is cell hell.”

I was an early adopter of email and soon found myself working remotely — until the slowness of dialup threatened my livelihood.

I adapted. I bought a laptop with wireless capability and parked outside public libraries all hours of the day and night to tap into high-speed internet.

But this was hardly “working from home” — or comfortable.

* * *

When DSL finally arrived, I was briefly up to speed.

As the internet grows, bandwidth must, too. And that has not happened in my neck of the woods, despite promises from each new telecommunications company that buys out the last.

I can’t even remember the names of all the different telephone companies we’ve had.

Currently, it’s Consolidated Communications. I was briefly elated when they offered me eight-times-faster bandwidth for a third of what I was paying for a slower connection.

Then I received an email saying that that speed wasn’t available where I live.

I live across the street from the small, white building that houses the phone company’s local communications equipment. Every time the company changes hands, it puts up a new sign and repaints all the trucks with the new corporate logo.

Meanwhile, our internet speed lags further and further behind. I’m spending more and more time waiting for web pages and documents to load, which raises my frustration level and lowers my productivity.

* * *

Personal frustration aside, I have high hopes for what high-speed connectivity can do to revive village and small-town life in Vermont.

With more people working from home, we can reduce our collective carbon footprint. With people spending less time traveling for work, they could have more time for civic engagement, from serving in elected office to volunteering on the local fire brigade.

With reliable, high-speed internet, schools could offer a wide array of classes through distance learning. Even small schools could offer multiple foreign languages and advanced math and sciences. With reliable, secure internet service, people could access some of their medical care online.

Instead, according to the VLCT report, our current lack of broadband means some Vermonters don’t have basic phone service, students can’t complete homework at home, and emergency personnel often lack an efficient means of communication.

Still, we poke along at a horse-and-buggy internet pace when the benefits of adequate broadband service throughout the state could improve tax revenue and quality of life.

Without high-speed internet service, the workers lured here on the Remote Worker Grant Program with a $10,000 bribe won’t stay.

Meanwhile, those of us already here, deeply rooted in our communities, will suffer loss of income, leading to even less tax revenue, and triggering further budget cuts and fewer services.

All these consequences will ensure that Vermont will become a place where no one — of any age — could even be bribed to live.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #498 (Wednesday, February 20, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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