how the broadband sausage does or does not get made

The Vermont Department of Public Service will hold public hearings to gather public input on the final draft of the 2014 Vermont Telecommunications Plan. The Plan addresses the major ongoing developments in the telecommunications industry, including broadband infrastructure development, regulatory policy and recommendations for future action. The Department will hold two public hearings in Orange County on the public comments draft of the Plan prior to adopting the final Plan. Middle Branch Grange, 78 Store Hill Road, East Bethel, Vermont, September 18, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.

telecom meeting

I went to this meeting. There weren’t even going to be any meetings in Orange County, the county where I live, until someone showed up at one of the Barre meetings and suggested them. So there were two meetings in Orange County last week. One during the day in Bethel and one in the evening in Strafford. Unfortunately the weather didn’t totally cooperate so there was a local power outage for some reason and a forecast of a hard frost that evening. So a lot of the farmers who would have shown up at this even had to stay home and cover plants and do other things that farmers do when the weather starts getting cold.

I’ve been doing a lot of leisure-time stuff in keeping with my theme this month but today I went to work. I sat and listened to multiple stories of farmers and other neighbors struggling with digital disinclusion. I took some notes and I made a statement. This is the polished version of what I said.

My name is Jessamyn West, I’m a technology educator in Randolph Vermont and I wrote a book about the digital divide. I have three points I’d like to make

  1. We’re interested in results, not projections. A lot of the data we hear talks about when we’re going to have everyone online, or points to the number of people who have this technology available. I’d like to know why people aren’t online and what we’re doing to work with those people. Saying that most Vermonters have access overlooks the chunk of people with no access who should be the focal point of future build-outs. This report talks about how Burlington Vermonters have a choice of ISPs and overlooks that most of us have almost no consumer choice at all.
  2. And while we’re getting people access, let’s make sure they all have the same access. People talk about 3G and 4G as if they are the same as cable or DSL. They’re not. They come with bandwidth caps, overage charges, and a lot of concern about impending lack of net neutrality. Similar to how, back when people had dial-up, some people in more remote locations had to pay for the phone calls in addition to having to pay for the service. We’re seeing the same gap now with remote users only having satellite or cellular-based access. We should strive for everyone having equitable access.
  3. Most important to me is what we call the empowerment or the usability divide. I heard a person earlier say she wanted to get access to the internet so that she could run a website for her small business. Just getting access isn’t going to give her a website. She’ll need resources and likely some human help in order to be able to do that. And where does that come from? It used to be that the digital divide was just “People don’t have access to computers” and then it was “People don’t have access to the internet” and now that most people have access, sometimes only through their public library, we are still seeing participation gaps. These gaps align along the same lines as other structural inequalities like poverty, educational attainment, age, race, and disability status. The people not participating are already facing multiple challenges. We know this. We need to find a way to support those people and not reinforce those inequalities.

The hardest to serve have always been the hardest to serve; the challenge of getting everyone online is going to necessarily mean having a plan for those people as well as everyone else. Thank you.

VT library stats & pitiful stories from the digital divide

The Boston Globe [via Associated Press] has a short article comparing bringing broadband to rural America to the rural electrification program which finally wired up the last of Vermont towns in the early 60s. The story is what you would expect, except that it’s a little maddening that the options offered are 1. wait for broadband and suffer with dial-up, or 2. nothing. The byline of East Burke points to a town with a teeny library that is open 12 hours per week. West Burke has a larger library but it’s still not large enough to have a website. According to the VT Department of Libraries’ statistics it doesn’t have a single public access computer. Lyndon is the closest town with high speed at their library. Not too far, but still several miles.

Doing a quick autofilter on the DoL’s list shows 183 public libraries in the state of Vermont. Ten have dial-up internet access. Thirteen have nothing. Seventy-five libraries have no wireless internet access. It’s possible I’m reading the statistics wrong, but this is fewer libraries with internet than in 2009. I sure hope I am reading the charts wrong.

Dial-up user Val Houde knows this as well as anybody. After moving here four years ago, the 51-year-old mother of four took a correspondence course for medical transcription, hoping to work from home. She plunked down $800, took the course, then found out the software wasn’t compatible with dial-up Internet, the only kind available to her.

Selling items on eBay, watching videos, playing games online? Forget it. The connection from her home computer is so slow, her online life is one of delays, degraded quality, and “buffering’’ warning messages. So she waits until the day a provider extends broadband to her house.

two “day in the life” anecdotes

Library Oral History Project
I went to the Calef Library in Washington and after debugging a knotty problem about why one computer could get on the Internet and one couldn’t (weird cables and someone being creative with the wiring who was not the librarian) I headed over to the town offices where the library was spearheading an oral history project. They got a lot of the older people in town together — one of whom called herself new to the area because she arrived in 1946 — and asked people a few short questions: What’s your name, where did you live and what did you do for fun?

People talked about taking horse and buggies around town, discussed old buildings that burned down, people who had passed on, and walking two miles back and forth to school each day. The most memory-jogging topic seemed to be a notorious schoolteacher who half the people in the room had been taught by. Apparently she was a bit of a task master and mention of her name always brought laughter. I’m not sure what the eventual plan for the videos are, but it was an easy set-up, one video recorder and someone to point it and a microphone hooked to a boombox so that people could be heard from across the room. You can see a few more photos under my Flickr oral history tag.

Young Library Patrons

Then I went to the Tunbridge Library to help them debug their Internet connection which had been flakey and was currently down. As much as they love their new broadband connection, the dial-up connection was a bit more reliable and often easier to troubleshoot. Now there’s a router, a hub and a switch all of which have wires coming in and out of them and a ton of on/off/other buttons. It looked to me like someone had pressed one of the “other” buttons which took down the network. I set it back up and wrote a list of troubleshooting steps that they can use next time. It’s sort of a big responsibility when the library calls/emails you and lets you know their Internet access is down. In areas like this, there is a pretty short list of people who can troubleshoot something like that, though I’m working every day to try to expand that number.

At the library we also made a plan for them to get a wireless router, a hosted domain and a website. For under $150 in set-up costs, they’ll have a presence on the web, custom domains for their email addresses and a high speed wireless connection in a town with very little broadband saturation. It feels just like the rural electrification project, very exciting.

I know I sort of bang this drum a lot, but the Digital Divide isn’t just about not having access to the Internet, it’s about not living in an Internet-aware culture. So in the same way that poverty is really about paucity of options — so not only do you not have money or resources but no one you know has money or resources — the Digital Divide is really about not having access, having erratic access, or not knowing what to do with that access once you have it. Every time I see a web page with ads designed to look like page elements, or pop-ups designed to look like Windows error messages, I cringe because I know that the people I work with are likely to have trouble with them. While I go on the road and talk about library 2.0, I’m still explaining to many of my students that no, they haven’t won a free laptop no matter what the blinky ad on the page says. I feel sometimes like teaching computer skills is all about explaining to people why they should dip their toes into a culture that seems hellbent on deceiving them, misleading them and ripping them off.