Time to eliminate the Venn of Doom

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

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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 connects residents and businesses to the global economy, their doctors and 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 which has developed; 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 which is almost exclusively limited to dial up or satellite for internet, sadly VTel’s federally taxpayer funded wireless network is still not available in her town. The only cell service in her town, CoverageCo 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 State Police to her town, at least 30 minutes for an ambulance assuming a volunteer and driver are able to respond immediately and the hospitals are 30 minutes away (when the roads are open and not closed with snow accidents or washed out roads). She called because her landline phone line was not working and the repair date she was given – more than a week – had her worried for her safety.

This summer I received an unusually high number of complaints about phone service repairs and installations. There has been a corresponding increase in complaints about repair times to the Public Utility Commission which regulates landline telephone service and other public utilities like electricity.  Because of this, it would not surprise me to see an investigation opened up 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 of the “Venn of Doom” – the place where no cell service, no internet service, and long distances from emergency response and emergency healthcare meet.

Vermont – and all other state’s – 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 each other and they also compete with the regulated telephone providers who must provide service and repairs of critical infrastructure to all Vermonters, not just those they can make a profit selling a high end product to. Guess which type of provider is losing landline customers in the easy – and cost effective to provide service to – densely populated service areas? Guess who still has to provide essential telephone service even when they lose landline customers? Guess who Vermont can penalize for poor service or lack of coverage?

This declining situation is not acceptable.  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.

The time for patiently waiting for this situation to improve has passed. Concerns about vulnerable rural Vermonters landline access have been communicated to the Public Service Department. 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 telecommunication access and the market for communication products, 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 public safety, education, healthcare access, economic issue. 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 ensure our regulatory environment going forward supports reliable affordable essential communications infrastructure availability for all Vermonters.

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