You can't build kitchen cabinets on dial up

Ski season is right around the corner in New England, and I just spent three days working with a group of communities in a very rural part of New England on broadband issues. Like many rural communities, large portions of this region are both unserved (still on dial up) and underserved (poor quality DSL or cable modem). Complicating the problem is a telephone infrastructure that is in poor condition, meaning erratic DSL service and extremely slow dial up.

I kept meeting people that were trying to work part time or full time from home, but were extremely frustrated because they either had only dial up at home or very slow DSL. Cable service was available in only a few small areas because of the rural nature of the region. What it means, practically, is that the incumbent telecom companies are controlling growth and land use in the region, not the local governments. I heard story after story about business location decisions made entirely on the basis of where there was broadband availability. While many of the stories were from professional people, including a software developer, a real estate property manager, and a financial consultant, the most interesting story came from a custom cabinet maker, who had located his business in a downtown retail area because it was the only place where there was broadband service.

You might wonder why a woodworker needs broadband, but this craftsman designs all his work on the computer and sends the finished drawings to a firm with computerized cutting machines that cuts all the various parts and pieces of the cabinets out and ships them back to the cabinetmaker for assembly and installation. You can't exchange CAD drawings over dial up. And even cable and DSL are barely adequate; for this kind of engineering design work, you need symmetric bandwidth so that you can upload the drawings.

Local leaders need help understanding that zoning, land use, energy conservation, and business growth are increasingly out of their control because the telecom companies (and where they offer broadband) are driving all these decisions.


Generalizing from your “kitchen cabinets” post, if one lives in a rural area today that lacks pervasive broadband - as I do - the likelihood of my community fully joining the 21st century is slim to none (and probably closer to none). Everything from education to economic development to public safety and governance are adversely effected. The absence of broadband, of course, impacts the residents of communities like ours financially because, as your recent trip so clearly demonstrated, we lack the opportunity to pursue the vast array of successful small and/or home-based internet driven business opportunities urban/suburban dwellers currently enjoy in virtually all parts of the country (and elsewhere in the world). One obvious result for poorly served rural communities is the increased likelihood of small business failures. Adding a well thought out internet component requiring broadband to a struggling local business could make the difference between sustainability and failure. Without broadband, this option is clearly off the table.For the entrepreneurally inclined living in an underserved rural community who contemplates a new venture requiring broadband access, a choice must be made between one of two far from ideal options: the concept is put aside and not developed, or the entrepreneur picks up stakes and leave the community to pursue the venture. Further, the attractive quality of life enjoyed in rural communities like ours that might otherwise entice new business from outside the area to relocate absolutely will not happen without modern broadband infrastructure - particularly those desirable low impact environmentally friendly small businesses involved in the so called “creative economy.” Ask the local real estate brokers, they hear it first. The second question the potential home buyer asks - after price - is about internet access. Simply put, the lack of broadband in many rural communities makes healthy economic development a near impossibility. One common, and especially sad, story in areas like ours is the need for talented young people to leave home, leave their community, to pursue interesting well paying careers in the information economy. Maybe they leave after high school, or after college. They have no choice but to leave because the opportunities just don’t exist. This is a huge loss loss to the community that bodes ill for the future. For these reason, and a myriad of others, we citizens of rural areas need broadband no less that our urban and suburban counterparts. The net result for communities that lack broadband and are not prepared to make the commitment to invest in fiber infrastructure themselves, a real risk of exists for economic stagnation, population loss and a withering away of the vitality of the community. To this writer, there is a powerful and sobering parallel between rural communities today not served by state-of-the-art broadband - and here I mean ubiquitous fiber infrastructure - and communities in the 1950’s who ended up miles from Ike’s brand new build Interstate Highway System. We’re both in the same boat - out of the loop and out of the action with our futures as risk. Their story is history. Ours does not have to be the same. Those of us who live in the kinds of communities I have been describing here and are committed to remaining for the wonderful quality of life, we need to wake up and take matters into our own hands. Verizon and Comcast are not soon planning to come to our rescue.