“Let them eat cake!” my friend proclaimed – making a grand sweeping gesture with an imaginary scepter as she jumped out of her chair to write and post the words on the wall in front of us.
I had just recanted a conversation to her that I’d partaken in with an executive from a Vermont telecommunications company an hour earlier. I was still somewhat incredulous about a question he had asked me and I wanted to check my reaction.
“Let them eat cake” is the traditional translation of the French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“, supposedly spoken by “a great princess” upon learning that the peasants had no bread. Since brioche was a luxury bread enriched with butter and eggs, the quotation would reflect the princess’s disregard for the peasants, or her poor understanding of their situation.[i]
This Summer I wrote in an oped titled Venn of Doom[ii] about Helyn, a physically handicapped woman in Readsboro who was told it would be up to ten days before her phone service was repaired. She’s a key longtime volunteer in a rural town which is located more then 30 minutes from State Police, ambulance or emergency rooms and she had just had serious surgery prior to her phone service going out. There is no cell service and no other phone or internet provider in her town.
One of the policy areas I spend the most time on as a legislator is connectivity. Previous to Helyn, my time had been focused on illuminating the economic disparity caused by the lack of cellular and internet in rural Vermont and trying to find policies that would invite new partners and dollars to the cause of connecting rural Vermont to the modern economy.
What happened to Helyn helped me understand that the status of communications infrastructure in rural Vermont was not static – in many places it was deteriorating. This issue has moved from one of economic connectedness to one of public safety.
The federal government largely preempts states from regulating internet providers, leaving development of telecommunications infrastructure to the free market. As a result, telecommunications networks in a dynamic and rapidly evolving free market are developing in areas where they are profitable, i.e. lots of customers easy to build to. In that type of environment there is limited incentive for improving or replacing infrastructure in areas that are less profitable, i.e. less customers and harder to build. And so, in the more rural reaches of Vermont, customers in the footprint of the legacy telephone Bell Operating Company – Consolidated Communications – are being left with copper lines built in the 1800’s. The lines don’t work well when it’s raining, often run through the woods, and as of late appear to be getting repaired by fewer and fewer employees.
That’s the situation Helyn and her neighbors, and my constituents in Wardsboro and our friends in the Northeast Kingdom and other rural Vermont and Northern New England locales find themselves in. There seems to be a profound misunderstanding of the impact of that situation.
“Why doesn’t she move?” That was the question posed to me by the CEO of the telecommunications company when I told him about Helyn. The question which my friend equated with the privileged obliviousness inherent in the historical quote “Let them eat cake!”
“Just don’t over build us.” That’s what the government affairs representative for the major Vermont cable companies told me late last week when I asked how we can make sure Helyn can call her doctor or for an ambulance. Not a hint of irony in his voice despite his companies having over built the legacy telephone Regional Bell Operating Company and contributed mightily to the situation unfolding in rural Vermont. Not an iota of discomfort when I noted that Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) have spent $572 million nationally on attempts to influence the FCC and other government agencies since 2008[iii] and a fraction of those funds dedicated to this issue could have solved it years ago.
“Rural economic development relies on many different things happening at the same time, Laura, not just expanding internet access. There is no silver bullet.” This was patiently explained to me by more than one misunderstanding fifth floor official on more than one occasion this fall as I worried about how we could ensure Helyn and other rural Vermonters had telecommunications access.
There may be a misunderstanding. The problem we need to solve is not whether or not rural Vermonters can stream “Duck Dynasty” or “Modern Family” on Netflix. The problem we need to solve is whether or not they can still call for help in the event of an accident, medical emergency or criminal activity.
In an effort to address that misunderstanding and what seems to be an inadequate sense of urgency, I’ve recently submitted a public comment[iv] to the Vermont Public Utility Commission’s open investigation into the service quality provided by Telephone Operating Company of Vermont.
Both Governor Scott and Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson have identified expansion of rural telecommunications as a priority this year. Solving this problem once and for all will take all of us – rural Vermonters are needed to step up with their municipalities, national telecom and cable providers are needed to step up with a new sense of collaboration and cooperation and start up internet service providers need to step up with their ideas and sense of entrepreneurship to help guide policymakers. Based on the situation in rural Vermont, and reports from around the country, we must act with a sense of urgency regarding the increasing risk opening up in rural Vermont for those who rely on landline phone service and to act in a way that acknowledges that the changing telecommunications markets are no longer just accelerating regional economic inequality but are compromising the safety of our citizens.