Rural Vermont's poor internet connectivity

Direcway Satellite Service dishBroadband internet service in rural areas of Vermont is still a shaky proposition. Just like the spotty cell phone service in the state, it all depends on whether the companies providing the service consider it profitable. Some industrialized countries consider internet connectivity an essential part of their economies and their governments have been quick to intervene where private industry has proved unwilling. But, not so in the United States, and not so in Vermont.

Buyer Beware

Broadband Internet service in rural areas can be had, but it is expensive and unreliable. Customers who opt for satellite service are forced to buy high priced equipment which then has a habit of becoming quickly outdated. One and two year service contracts are required. When a customer complains about outages, refunds are almost never offered. If a customer cannot tolerate the poor service and wants to cancel, these companies will usually attempt to sue for breach of contract.

So, read the fine print before you choose a service. Such contracts usually excuse a company from any responsibility for service quality. Contracts are written in such a way that even if service is almost nonexistent, they can still force you to pay. Of course, such tactics would never be tolerated by an urban population and government intervention would almost certainly follow, but rural areas like Vermont have little influence over how they are treated in such matters.

Satellite Services may be on their way out

Wild Blue Satellite Service DishUp until recently, satellite service was the only way you could get broadband internet in a Vermont rural area. Those willing to pay in excess of $100 per month, plus a $600-$700 installation fee, are able to receive download speeds similar to that of a cable subscriber in the big city. But, not so with upload speeds. Those still remain almost as slow as a telephone modem. And, satellite service is unsuitable for internet phone providers like Vonage because of something call "latency." This word refers to the time it takes for a signal to travel to and from the satellite. The delay, sometimes several seconds, makes it impossible to operate a telephone connection. Interactivity with a site like Pay Pal is also painfully slow. Expect at least several outages per month with a satellite service. Severe lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes and heavy snowfalls all cause outages effecting hundreds of thousands of customers. Calls to a national call center do little to alleviate customer frustration.

Wireless Internet

A wireless internet installationA more recent answer to internet connectivity in rural Vermont is Wireless. In this case, the signal comes in from a tower located nearby. The equipment and installation is still costly but usually remains the property of the provider so you don't have to worry so much about obsolescence. But, the technology requires a line of sight, so not everyone can get it. With a premium service level, speeds are high enough to operate an internet phone service like Vonage. But once again, service quality is not guaranteed and when the service goes down there may not be anyone around to fix it immediately. The wireless internet business is apparently not lucrative enough to keep technicians on call 24-7. That could mean not only no internet service but also no phone service for a day or two!

Government Intervention

Just like government regulation of cell phone service and the broadcast spectrum, expect government regulation of the internet to come into force, just as soon as this new area of economic activity becomes a reliable tax target. With the taxation and government grants to fledging companies (Vermont has started giving out grants), the first signs are there. Of course with it comes public accountability. Will we see Vermont Internet connectivity providers before the local Public Service Utilities Board? Such an overseeing body is badly needed to restrain the gouging and poor service in an area which is essential to the well being of rural areas.

Discuss this issue further in Scenes of Vermont Forums

Timothy Palmer-Benson, October 2007