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Column: Here’s the Lowdown on My Latest Download

I have escaped from the Third World. No, not the real Third World, where daily life is nasty, brutish and short, but the virtual Third World of Internet inaccessibility, the world manipulated by huge telecom corporations for short-term profits at the expense of universal connectivity and economic productivity. That’s the reason this country is in 14th place globally when measuring fiber-optic penetration.

I live not in sub-Saharan Africa but in rural Vermont, in a narrow valley too far out for DSL, tantalizing close to wireless communications towers that I can’t connect to, and condemned, or so I thought, to slow and inadequate satellite broadband access. But at least it was better than the dial-up. Still, on a perfectly clear day with no cloud cover or roving thunderstorms, it took me well over a minute to connect to the Netflix movie queue. That might not seem like much, but in this age of instant gratification and almost instantaneous communications everywhere else, that’s deprivation.

Less than six seconds: That’s what it now takes. As if my appetite for streaming video content increases, I could scale up from 5 megabytes per second to 10 or 20 or 40 mbps or, within the foreseeable future, 100 mbps. This is fiber optics.

So how did this happen? It all began in Tunbridge in 2007, when I heard someone describe the Internet Disneyland accessible by fiber-optic broadband. It sounded too good to be true, but the speaker said he had helped make it happen in Eastern Europe. It also had happened in India where all those customer service calls go to die. In fact, there seemed to be fiber-optic connectivity almost everywhere but here, in deepest, darkest rural America.

In some states, Big Telecom’s lobbyists, to suppress competition, have even persuaded legislatures to ban municipal ownership of telecoms. In Vermont, Act 79 forbids funding local telecoms through municipal taxes. So what can be done?

The formal Federal Communications Commission definition of the bandwidth that constitutes high-speed broadband is laughably low. Thus, even poor DSL and wireless satellite bandwidths pass, but they are not the future. It seems that the system is rigged to squeeze all possible revenue out of rural customers. Each subsequent bite of the economic apple — each new fee for upgrading from dial-up to satellite wireless to DSL to 3G to 4G and ultimately to fiber optics — simply delays the inevitable and compromises America’s ability to compete globally. Why not just make the investment in fiber-optic broadband a national priority and skip the incremental costs to upgrade? That’s what happened in India, where fiber-optic access was available a decade ago.

Our children are growing up and leaving Vermont for opportunities elsewhere, many of those opportunities being dependent on high-speed Internet accessibility. Our school populations are shrinking, and the population is aging. As our small towns struggle for economic viability, why haven’t we already brought fiber-optic connectivity to the entire state? Not just in certain urban pockets, but throughout the state?

The argument, of course, has always been that we can’t afford it. I bet that is what Verizon said as it exited Vermont with the revenues that might have financed such a fiber-optic network. It’s what Fairpoint says as it deploys DSL. It’s what VTel, with millions in federal grants and loans, says as it touts wireless service while installing fiber-optic cable only to its own telephone customers.

With fiber-optic access, those who own second homes in Vermont might communicate with their offices from here and not have to return so frequently to Megalopolis, or they might relocate their businesses here, either of which would boost the local economy. People who commute to work might be able to work more effectively and more frequently from home, which would save gas and reduce automobile emissions. Those under a doctor’s care, instead of spending an entire day traveling to and from every routine medical checkup, might be able to do so via a video conference with their doctors. Instead of duplicating teachers in every village, why not have certain specialized classes taught online by a single teacher in the same supervisory union? What might that do for school budgets?

That’s the vision of the future that persuaded me to enlist in the ECFiber initiative seven years ago. Now it’s reality. In East-Central Vermont, ECFiber’s community-owned fiber-optic network has connected 568 customers and counting. Our subscriber-financed high-speed Internet service, in partnership with the nonprofit ValleyNet, is growing throughout the Upper Valley. Who said it couldn’t be done?

Stephen Willbanks is the Strafford representative to the ECFiber Governing Board.