If broadband is the new interstate highway ... why are we settling for two-lane blacktop?
Recent discussions around the state and during the campaign for governor suggest a growing unease about the prospect of economic growth and prosperity in Vermont. Travel and transportation are becoming more expensive. The state has lost several hundred high-tech jobs in the past year.
The admirable E-State initiative is largely an exercise to convince ourselves that "something is being done," and "we've got it covered." By late 2010, by magic, FairPoint (dangerously undercapitalized) and Comcast (the latest owner of the Vermont assets of the bankrupt Adelphia), and a few "WISPs," wireless Internet providers covering the hills and hollers, will have us covered. No significant attention is required by the state economic development folks; no significant public investment is required.
Talks with the Douglas administration and Gaye Symington have shown that they think the E-State deal is just fine. Pollina's Web site makes no reference to broadband at all.
What worries me is that with E-State we're going to get people barely off dialup. By going with wireless Internet connections, we believe that we have a state-of-the-art high-tech infrastructure superior to other states. That is how it is being sold. But, we're really just paving the dirt roads.
Wired broadband connections in 2008 are the equivalent of the interstate highway project of the 1960s, and the rural electrification projects of the 1940s. Broadband is the strategic infrastructure of our time, and should be treated as the crucial public investment that it represents. If we fail to invest in this infrastructure we will be passed by other regions that are making these investments.
Here's why. Current and future Internet services include voice and video in both directions. These services require high speeds, and continuous connections to be effective. (E-mail, web browsing and research, the stuff we've been using the Internet for, for the past 20 years, by contrast, do not). Further, new applications are predicated on the end-user being a provider, not just a passive consumer of another 142 high-def television channels or downloader of the latest iTune. In other words, high-speed broadband is not simply another medium for delivering the same old media by the same old conglomerates. Broadband enables individuals and small business to actively participate, lead and contribute to the future economic life of Vermont.
New applications, including distance education, telemedicine, videoconferencing and telecommuting, all of which are enjoying increasing interest and urgency with the increase in gasoline prices, are moving out of the research phase and into production. Several providers of these services are in Vermont and they service clients around the world. How ironic is it then that in many areas they can't reach Vermonters in their homes or businesses because of the lack of investment in broadband?
We're not out in front. We're barely catching up.
Remember the failed Tech Academy proposal a few years back? Almost everyone agreed that this was a good idea, but it foundered under the weight of politics and financing which played one town off another. Now we're on the cusp of being able to provide technical education via distance learning.
This isn't merely a theoretical possibility. Collaborators, including the Vermont Software Developer's Alliance, Linking Learning2Life, St. Michael's College, the city of Burlington and the town of Colchester have submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a pilot project using a Vermont-based company, Global Classroom, to deliver advanced placement and technical courses to students throughout the state via broadband. My own company, Microdesign, with the UVM Department of Physical Therapy, is delivering a thrice-weekly exercise program to a dozen patients in their homes via broadband using their home TV sets and cameras which allow the instructor to supervise and correct their movement. We see potential for cardio rehab, diabetes management, and a host of health and wellness applications, provided that the participants have affordable, reliable broadband connections to their homes.
Understandably, politicians pick their battles. I want to suggest that the investment in broadband infrastructure should be given the highest priority by all candidates for governor.
Many solutions to the intractable problems we face in Vermont of workforce training, skyrocketing education and healthcare costs, and economic development will be delivered via broadband. And it will take forward-thinking legislation and economic incentives, in partnership with private initiatives, to get us there.
Lawrence Keyes is a principal with Microdesign Consulting Inc. in Colchester, and chairs the Vermont Software Developer's Alliance outreach committee.