Last week, the Vermont Department of Public Service began a series of public hearings on the public comment draft of its State Telecommunications Plan. The plan is intended to asses the current state of the telecom landscape in Vermont, map out goals and benchmarks for the next 10 years, and provide recommendations for how to achieve them. The plan sets a target of 100 megabit per second symmetrical connections for every home and business in the state by 2024.
Oddly enough, achieving that even today would put them behind many metropolitan areas across the United States. The technology needed to deliver 100 Mbps connections is essentially the same that would be used to deliver 1 Gbps, begging the question why such a limited goal?
The 100/100 mbps symmetrical target is for 10 years into the future, but in the nearer term the plan calls for universal 4/1 Mbps coverage, raised to 10/1 Mbps coverage by 2020. While it may at first glance seem reasonable to set gradually rising targets, these long and short term goals actually have the potential to conflict with each other.
As pointed out by Vermont Public Radio, the 100/100 Mbps standard would likely require universal FTTH, or at least fiber to the node combined with other technological advances and investments. Meeting this goal would require a huge investment in next generation fiber optic infrastructure, yet the Telecommunications Plan calls for funding priorities to be focused on achieving universal 4/1 mbps coverage for the next 6 years. This lower standard will likely be met with a combination of last generation technologies like copper wire DSL and wireless that are incapable of meeting the 100/100 standard.
Continuing to build out older systems while deferring investments in fiber, which is adaptable to meet just about any future need, seems illogical. It’s a bit like saying you’re going to put all your expendable income for the next six years into repairing your VCR and buying tapes, while promising you’ll buy a DVD player immediately after.
While the goal of first guaranteeing all Vermonters some basic level of coverage is admirable, Vermont can do better by setting higher goals for itself. However, a real plan would require Vermont to actually invest in better connections rather than continuing to award grants to pokey incumbent providers like Comcast and FairPoint.
Leslie Nulty, a former Project Coordinator with the locally-owned, open access EC Fiber Network in the eastern part of state, put it best in her scathing criticism of the plan:
The long-range vision is admirable, but unfortunately the plan has no guidance at all as to how to reach it. It’s near-term guidelines, on the other hand, assure that current public policy will hinder, if not completely block, achievement of the long-term “Vision.”
Another concerning piece of the Plan is its decidedly skeptical attitude toward public networks, or anything that deviates from the standard playbook of offering grants to incumbent provider to entice them to build. From page vii of the Telecommunications Plan:
7. Vermont policy makers should carefully consider the potential negative outcomes of state and municipalities directly competing with private firms in the provision of telecommunications services, especially in areas where consumers are adequately served. Vermont should refrain from policies, including financial incentives, that have the net effect of diminishing competitive choice in the marketplace.
There is no evidence that municipal networks diminish competititon while there is plenty of evidence that municipal networks have resulted in more competition and increased investment from incumbent providers. The idea that more competition results in less competition is worthy of an explanation from George Orwell.
“Competitive choice” is another goal that sounds good, but in this context it is used primarily to discourage investment in local networks that allow communities to determine and meet their own needs. To communities that have limited or no broadband access, this in effect announces that the state has little interest in helping them build their own networks, they should just sit tight until they get an already obsolete 4/1 mbps connection from a private provider, subsidized by the state, sometime around 2017 or 2018.
On the whole, this Telecommunications Plan offers minimalist requirements for “basic” broadband that are already obsolete, and completely ignores other important measures of quality connectivity, such as latency. It offers essentially no new funding to back up its promises, with only vague mentions of tapping “public and private sources” while using existing revenue streams to invest in meeting outdated standards through private providers. The list of recommendations mostly read like an endorsement of the status quo, which stands at odds with the headline grabbing pronouncements of long-term goals. In short, it seems like a plan designed to have the most public relations impact with the minimal expense of political, financial, or even intellectual capital.
For a more detailed breakdown of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan’s failings from someone more versed in the local landscape, read the full testimony given by Leslie Nulty [pdf] at a public hearing on the issue. She touches on all the issues mentioned above and a variety of others, from the plan’s lack of support for open access network models to new funding mechanisms preferable to grants to incumbents, such as revolving loan funds to finance network buildouts.