McQuiston: The Information Superhighway

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(HOST)  Commentator Tim McQuiston says that the Vermont stretch of the information superhighway seems to have developed what feels like a whole series of potholes – and they’re getting in the way of progress.

(MCQUISTON) In the 1950s, President Eisenhower unveiled a plan to create the Interstate highway system.  It took a few years, but eventually it was built.  In the 1990s we were promised the Information Superhighway. But, really, we’re still waiting for much of it.

The front end of the system has been developed to a spectacular and seemingly limitless degree: cell phones, wireless, iPads, Droids, Blackberries…. But it’s as if all those fancy gadgets are the race cars of the Internet world, and we’re still driving them on back roads.

Many truly next generation systems are nearly ready to be deployed. Those systems will be based on wireless technology that will be much faster than the so-called 4G now being advertised.  And in order to achieve the data capacity necessary, the backbone of this system must be fiber optic cable.  The new infrastructure will use much smaller, more frequent antennas and will not require thousands of transmission towers, thus offering a much lower physical profile.

Governor Douglas promised that we’d have that Superhighway built in Vermont by now.  A tremendous lack of money, corporate feudalism, and a shortage of political will has resulted in very little progress being made to date.  Now Governor Shumlin has made the same promise with a target of success by 2013 – in other words, barely around the corner.

One of the fortunate windfalls of the not-so-Great Recession has been the allocation by the federal government of billions of dollars in infrastructure development as part of its economic stimulus strategy.  Vermont has received more than $400 million for broadband deployment.  But keep in mind that the telecommunications companies loath each other; regulation is wildly uneven and there is a lot of duplicated effort.  Many telecom competitors are laying fiber side-by-side.  This is a waste. Governor Shumlin must cajole, or muscle, the telecoms into compliance.

While most of us don’t really care about the telecoms in-fighting and business strategies, we should care about the tremendous economic windfall available if Vermont were to lay fiber across the state.  We would have the world at the snap of our fingers.

Back in Ike’s day, there was a sense in America of "all for one and one for all."  And this was not a sentimental attitude. Imagine in the current political climate trying to take tens of thousands of miles of private property by eminent domain to build the Interstate highway system – even if you could play the national defense card, as Eisenhower did.  Once again, there’s too much at stake for us to be scared off by any political entity or self interest.

Indifferent consumers and policy makers are also standing in the way of progress.  We need to demand that they get out of the way.

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