Broad band in Vt

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(HOST) Many Vermont communities are having to work on their own to get faster access to the Web. Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at a recent Public Service Board case to help understand why.

(GILBERT) If you think that private business can solve problems without a push from government, and that there’s no need for public endeavors, you should consider the recent Public Service Board case against Verizon Communications.

The board said that Verizon didn’t follow through on promises to provide better services for customers around the state, especially faster broad-band Web service. The PSB assessed significant penalties – eight million dollars – against Verizon.

If you’re a Verizon customer – as most Vermont homes and businesses are – and if you live in a rural area – as many Vermonters do – and if you surf the Web – as about two-thirds of Vermonters do – you know what this is about. You can’t get a high-speed connection to the Web. You’re still forced to use a “dial-up” connection through your Verizon phone line. Speeds may be as slow as 26.4 kbps.

That’s like being forced to ride a tricycle on the Interstate.

Broad-band connections can get you online at speeds five times or more faster than dial-up. But those connections aren’t available everywhere. Five years ago the PSB and Verizon cut a deal. Verizon promised to build out broad-band access across the state. In return, the state said it would ease regulatory control over Verizon’s activities.

The state kept its side of the bargain. But five years later, Verizon is nowhere near keeping its promise. Even though Verizon customers get bill stuffers and slick newspaper inserts advertising DSL service, many rural customers can’t get the service. The company’s inability to keep its promise led the board to take the unusual step of specifically criticizing the former Verizon Vermont president.

Broad-band makes a big difference in the things you do on the Web. A recent study found that more people with broad-band get their news online, bank online, shop online, and read blogs than do dial-up users. And broad-band access tracks socio-economic factors. You’re more likely to have broad-band if you’re wealthier and college-educated – not to mention if you live in cities and suburbs.

So what’s ahead for Vermonters in rural areas of the state? Will DSL service from Verizon, or fiber-optic cable from Adelphia, come your way soon? Don’t count on it. Private companies have apparently determined that there just isn’t enough profit in rural areas. So, just as it took public co-ops to bring electricity to farms and villages in the 1930s and ’40s, it’s taking community initiatives to bring broad-band to rural areas. All around the state, communi- ties are coming together and figuring out innovative ways to get faster Web access. Many are trying wireless networks. Some are hoping for broad-band over electric lines. Funding is coming from grants, or from pre-paid subscriptions.

It would be nice if the eight million dollar penalty levied against Verizon could be used to get more Vermonters connected to decent Web service. And let’s hope that the PSB continues to keep a close watch over promises made to bring such important new technology to all of our state – promises that need to be kept.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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