Thin Pipe, Part II
What would you do for faster internet? The author risks being exiled from town to get it.
In Part I of Thin Pipe, I chronicled my long, slow journey towards broadband internet, starting with the dial-up days. This first part left at a point where our town was looking into building its own, municipal broadband system. And it left the author ready to get involved in town matters, which was certainly not on-brand for him.
In order to understand the seriousness of this situation, you’d need to also understand that I had lived in this town for twenty years, and made a career out of flying under the radar. Not an active churchgoer, not in the PTA or on any town committee, didn’t really hang out with the neighbors, not a regular at any of the towns few restaurants or venues.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the town. It was more a matter of uncomfortable familiarity - this town is a very small, rural bedroom community, and an almost impossible place to remain anonymous if you so much as peeked out your window. I remember moving in and calling the post office to schedule a mail delivery stop. They asked what my name was, and then the person (whom I’d never met) recited my address from memory, and launched into a little lecture about how my mailbox was too low.
And he was not looking up this info on a computer. The person answering the phone down at the post office was literally the person who dropped off my mail, and knew where I lived and exactly what was going on with my mailbox situation. And so it went for most other things in town, you were part of the community, whether you liked it or not.
So being a fairly private person, it was with great trepidation that I stepped into public life in town. I drove down to the rundown “Town Hall Annex” building one Wednesday night where the towns governing body, the Select Board, held its hearings. Topic of the evening was taking applications for the new Broadband Committee.
I nervously offered my services, showing off the letter I had written to our state representative on our town’s behalf, and giving a brief background on my credentials as a computer engineer. The others who came to apply were a rogues gallery of similar tech-type people, who were also starved for bandwidth, enough so anyway to overcome their own reluctances and apply.
The Chairman of the (three-person) Select board was a guy who I’ll call “Stu” here. Stu was I guess a very well known quantity in town, not that I knew any details, given my self-imposed isolation from town political matters. I would say he looked a lot more like the whiskey-drinking prospector you encounter in some Western RPG game, than a slick politician. Stu did have political savvy and an approachable manner however, and it had earned him a position as Selectman.
Shortly after this meeting, I received an email letting me know I had been selected for the Committee. (Which was most definitely an “Oh no, what have I done?” kind of moment.) But I showed up to the first meeting, and saw about eight others who had also been at the earlier Select Board meeting.
And to my surprise, Stu was there. He had apparently assigned himself to the committee as well, and was very excited about bringing broadband into the town. Stu had in fact some technical background, had at one point ran his own IT consulting business, and had set up all the computer systems in the Town Hall (like about four.)
He had also served on many town committees and was well versed on procedure, such as the Open Meeting Laws the governed how you must legally hold town-related business. And at our first meeting, Stu told us what he said he told all new committee members:
“Congratulations on serving on a town committee. You just made enemies with four people you don’t even know.”
Stu was eager to hit the ground running, and angled to become committee chair. We shot the idea down in our first committee vote though, because we were worried about how it would seem. Our one-and-only job was to make recommendations to the Select Board, and if the chair of the Broadband Committee was also the Chair of the Select Board, it may create a conflict or concern. And it turned out to be a good call. Because the committee as a whole would attract considerably more than four enemies in town, who eventually questioned this and almost every other thing we did.
We picked a different Chair, “Rob”, and somehow I, by virtue of running my mouth too much probably, was later voted as Vice-Chairman of the committee. It was sold to me like an important title, but really it was just that no one wanted to take minutes and post meeting notices and such, and so I took on that job. It was illegal to hold a meeting without a days prior notice at least, and minutes of every meeting needed to be posted, publicly.
We set about the task of figuring out how we would build out the “last mile” connection from the internet connection the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) was bringing into town. We had contacted the cable companies with little response, and assumed the same factors that made us unattractive to them years ago were still in play. The plan therefore was to build a town-owned, municipal broadband system, funded by a bond the town would take out, and paid for eventually, by subscribers.
This model had been used successfully in other towns, including a rural town Stu and another member “Jack” had found to the west of us, after some research. We all went on a field trip to talk with them, driving out one sub-zero February night in Rob’s thirteen-year-old minivan. Things west of us were very very rural, as in many miles of road with no houses, and no cell service.
I was pretty sure Rob’s van would break down and we would all freeze to death that night, but fortunately we made it, and there we learned of this great fiber optic system their town had overwhelmingly approved. It rivaled Google Fiber, with residents getting a 1GB/sec connection, and the town pulled it off in better-than-expected time, in spite of being even smaller than our town. Their Selectmen were very enthusiastic and willing to help us do the same.
We came back from that trip encouraged. Stu was very excited and beginning to talk about contractors he knew and people we could call, kind of like he was working on his house. It was about here that things started to get… weird. I was nervously adding details of our meetings into the minutes, that were published on the towns website. Everything was above board, except that I could not escape the feeling it wasn’t. Stu, Jack and one of the other town regulars on the committee knew a lot more about the process and would tend to drive things. Decisions we made often felt like foregone conclusions, and that the remainder of the committee, consisting of the tech-centric newcomers, were in some senses being taken along for the ride.
Perhaps this is also how things were handled in the town west of us; It’s possible the Selectmen there kind of just made the decisions on the side, and pushed the whole thing through out there without a lot of fuss. For our town though, the discussions from the committee that were now appearing in our minutes about forming a municipal broadband system triggered a furious backlash.
And I’ll take a brief detour to give a couple theories why: Demographically, we’re a small town, with a small tax base and large older, retired population. My intent with my blogs is to steer clear of politics, but seeing the nature of this post kind of requires it, I will say the town is politically on the conservative side, and when it comes to fiscal matters, very conservative.
And the fiscal conservativeness has often served us well. Money is not usually wasted in any way — and we do a lot, with a little. This is good but also bad, as it also has caused us to often fail to invest in infrastructure, even badly-needed infrastructure, like public building construction and maintenance.
Our weekly evening meetings were held in the main office our 19th-century Town Hall, itself in need of many repairs. We all sat around a large table in the cramped central room of the building. The walls here were lined by other tables and phones and computers, as it was the main functioning office for the town during the day. Mismatched chairs were scavenged from all parts of the building for every meeting, like a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
One day we needed to have a conference call with a potential internet service provider (ISP). The town office apparently had no functioning speaker phone system, so I had to bring in my own speakerphone from home. I crawled under the nearby desk to plug it in, and found a Christmas-tree of phone lines and splitters-upon-splitters. It was after business hours, so I just unplugged the whole lot, and plugged in our speakerphone.
Halfway through our meeting, a young fireman dressed in full gear appeared at the doorway, and timidly interrupted us. Stu asked him what the problem was.
He said - “Uh, the phone lines are down for the fire house. We think the 911 system is not connected? They said the phones are routed through here?”
And it was somehow true. I do not understand the setup to this day, but somehow my unplugging of the big nest of phone splitters had not only disconnected the town hall office phones, but also the adjacent police and fire station. I was horrified. Horrified not only that I had disconnected the towns emergency lines, but in the ramshackle nature of a crucial town system like this one.
Stu for his part was unflustered. He assured the fireman that we knew what was wrong, and would fix it right away. I scrambled under the desk and reconnected the original plugs, and the town was online again.
Crisis averted, but this to me foreshadowed what came next. The same reluctance for spending money on improving infrastructure in town would immediately play into the situation with broadband. People started to show up at our meetings, and we had become the subject of conversation at the Senior Center and local coffee shop. The opposition had assigned rotating members of people to sit in our meetings to keep tabs on us. We also regularly had a reporter from the local paper attend, who would write a stream of largely unfavorable articles about municipal broadband. I would later learn that the reporter was good friends with one of our more vocal opponents in town, a bias that everyone took as a given.
On top of all this was the second big obstacle. Our previous attempt at a municipal project was the installation of two, 230-foot-tall wind turbines, supplying 40% of our towns power. This was a project that was the brainchild of our former Light Department manager, another town character who had a gift for finding creative ways around bureaucratic obstacles.
The Light Department had taken out a big loan to buy them, using projections that showed that this investment would pay for itself as electric rates rose, since ours would remain constant. But this assumption was made during “peak oil” mania, just before fracking and solar would drive down electric costs, rapidly. We ended up having two expensive power sources, a big loan, and an inability to sell the turbines because the manufacturer of them went bankrupt the year after installation.
Due to the specifics of how a Municipal Light Plant works, the decision to build these was made without the need for any sort of town vote. It left us with one of the highest electric rates in the state, and was widely considered in town to be a giant fiasco — so much so that the once-beloved Light Department manager had to move out of town, as he had become a pariah.
At our public hearings for the broadband project, all of this played out. Accusations that we were “building another windmill” were common, and that the town should not be allowed to create another municipal service. And there was a general mistrust of the committee too; that it was stacked with liberal techies, unconcerned with costs and taxes. Also somewhere here, I discovered that Stu, while diplomatic in most cases, had a hot temper that came boiling out when one of his age-old town enemies would push the right button. Which did not help our public relations, at all.
Tempers flared at both public discussions, and internal meetings. At one point, Stu and Rob got into a shouting match that I was almost worried would end in blows. But it did end with Rob angrily resigning from the committee.
Time went by. We were approaching a special town meeting vote for the project, to fund the initial upgrade of the telephone poles that was needed for any project to proceed, and to create a new town entity to manage the system.
It would cost over a million just to start, which was a lot for our tiny town. I and the other remaining committee members were understandably skeptical that it would pass, given the fervor against the project we’d encountered.
Our own contribution for the effort was to have yard signs made up, encouraging people to vote for Broadband. This had to be done as a separate, non-profit/PAC, unrelated to the committee, since it collected donations and advocated for a political cause. A big mountain of paperwork was done to set up this organization, that only lasted a month. We went through the hassle of it though, sent out flyers and made signs and using donations, put them in our yard, and offered them to others.
I came home from a short trip the day after getting the yard signs, discovering ours to be gone. Amazed at how volatile this whole thing had gotten, I began running through suspects in my mind. One of the most vocal opponents of the project lived on my street. Must have been Rose? Damn you, treacherous Rose! After a few hours of fuming, I received a call. It was one of our Broadband allies, who was the wife of another committee member. She wanted to give a sign to someone but we were not home to give one to her, so FYI she took the one out front, hope we didn't mind.
I was slightly embarrassed for my suspicions of Rose, but only slightly. A lot of mistrust lingered. This is the kind of vibe we all had going into the special town meeting. Everyone seemed angry and the proposal seemed doomed to fall to our detractors. But people flooded into the school gym for the vote, which was considered a good sign. We felt on the whole, people wanted better internet, and that more than just the techies in town were frustrated. A good contingent of the opposition group from town also showed up, but their numbers were dwarfed in size by a crowd of new faces, unfamiliar to me.
And when the yea/nay vote was called, the ‘yeas’ took it by close to 90% after each hand ballot, held aloft, was counted. I looked out then to a sea of pink cards held in the air, each confirming that we were indeed not crazy. Confirming that we were in fact doing something that people in town, to a very large degree, wanted. And I almost cried, I was so happy.
There has always been talk of a ‘silent majority’ from one political party or another, but this was my first-hand introduction that this phenomenon could in at least some cases be real. We had spent years at this point, listening to and debating with many vocal opponents and detractors of the project, reading many negative articles in the paper about it. The people who were in favor did not really see any need to attend hearings or meetings; as far as they were concerned, we were doing the work they wanted. But they were thus invisible to us.
It had left me at least with a very myopic view of the town, one dominated by fussbudgets and reactionary, selfish sorts who could not see things in the light of a common good. There were those for sure, but on the whole it seemed the town was interested in building something to help everyone.
At the next broadband meeting, Stu brought in some of his home-made moonshine, which he was eager to share with the committee in a celebratory round. (Stu had made moonshine because - of course he did.) We passed the bottle around, and it was naturally awful, because it was moonshine. But all that could go through my mind was, “Hey, here I am in the Town Hall, drinking moonshine with the Chairman of the Select Board. Didn’t expect that today.”
In the end though, I was wrong. The town didn’t want municipal broadband. As part of the vote, we created a new “Municipal Light Plant” entity to oversee the construction of the new system; a strange legal detail requiring the new town body to be a “Lighting Plant”, instead of something more apropos. And the Broadband Committee was dissolved. Jack and Stu remained involved in the new internet Municipal Light Plant, but I retired from public life, and just waited impatiently but hopefully for our system to be built.
Shortly after that though, things fell through with the contractor we had been negotiating with, the town began having second thoughts about building anything, and the momentum for the municipal broadband plan kind of fell apart.
Only a month earlier, we had received a standing ovation from people at the annual town meeting for our efforts to bring in broadband, but now it seemed we would not be delivering anything. And I was wondering if I and the now-defunct Broadband Committee would be the next pariahs in town that may need to move.
But we had at least gone through with upgrading our short telephone poles, using the money funded from the previous vote. And after that, the cable companies began to have an interest in wiring the town. We got multiple bids, and selected one. My personal feeling is that it would have been better to do a municipal system, where the money stays in town rather than going to the shareholders of Charter Communications.
But I guess you could consider it a compromise. I am happy to say I am sitting here with my Spectrum fiber service, currently running at a smooth 85Mb/sec, and plenty of options to go higher if needed. Maybe the municipal system would have been faster and better for the town, maybe more expensive and problem-laden. Hard to say. Our opponents were pretty satisfied that the town was not getting into the internet business and raising taxes. They, along with over 90% of the town, subscribed.
And for my part, I’m just happy I don’t have to climb any more trees to get internet service.
Next Week: Ever have a summer job you hated? In 1982, the author successfully hacks his way out of having to fill in pot-holes. A thrilling tale of hexadecimal dumping and used-car salesmen next time in: A Teenager’s Guide to Avoiding Actual Work
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Love your writing style, thanks for putting these long-form tech tales out there! My introduction to your writing and newsletter was through your interesting summer job, but I also enjoyed both articles about your time at the Digital Equipment Corporation. Interesting indeed the weirdness of technology, but the organizational problems still live on with siloed teams fighting for turf
Thanks for writing about your battle for Internet access. I started my career as a network engineer, so I’ve been shocked over the years about the number of Americans living in areas without broadband access/ slow Internet, where the past presidents of both political affiliations tried to tackle the problem with Congress even passing a law in early 2009 with funding for broadband.
To still see your town struggling to get Internet was a surprise, until I learned about the fateful decision to not invest in longer telephone poles in the early ‘90s. Honestly, I didn’t imagine such a happy ending with 85 Mb/s for your house with everything described. If I was an older retired person living there, who had seen the fiasco with the windmill I wouldn’t have wanted this other project either. When you described the 911 system outage too it foreboded further against this project, and to see so many vocal opponents coming out against it, all had me thinking your town wouldn’t go for the $1 million investment of telephone poles. So that’s great you all took the trouble to setup that nonprofit to place out those yard signs, and get the word out for this critical vote. Happy you stepped in for this civil engagement, despite the need to drop that anonymity in such a small town.
I too would have liked to see your town setup municipal broadband like a utility. Just this last week, NBC nightly news ran a story about how the majority of states outlaw municipal-owned Internet, while a few counties pulled it off to great effect. They mentioned one rural county in North Carolina making the great investment and leap to owning their own Internet
This article has more details versus the short clip above https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/internet/some-north-carolina-residents-still-fight-internet-access-n1270943
Crazy how Time Warner Cable, who incidentally got acquired by your new provider, Charter in 2016, refused to partner with Wilson County for their broadband access, but even tried to pass legislation preventing the county from running their own Internet. Thankfully that push failed, but it seems their coordinated push around the country succeeded.
I’m impressed that you made working remote possible with such bad Internet. I would’ve given up long ago, probably moved elsewhere, but it’s true with a slow connection you can get a lot done. Still, that satellite latency sounded unbearable. I myself get super frustrated, when I type on a remote terminal and there is any lag at all. So props to you for making it work all these years. Although, you must wonder, what could you have achieved had you had that faster connection? If you had been able to work smoothly without all the little delays that add up as time goes by? Still with writing software, thankfully for a lot of things we can do everything locally, even running our own web server and database on a development laptop 💻
As somebody who's dealt with overloaded DSLAMs out in the woods of rural WA, I feel your pain. 700-800kbps. Working from home with two teens in the house. We ended up moving because of other circumstances, and I'm glad to say we have actual broadband now. I didn't get involved in any politics, but there *was* thought of starting a local WISP. That was a pipe dream and people out there are hoping Starlink will be their savior. Time will tell!
If anybody wants to read my much shorter, completely different take on this problem, I wrote about it in 2013: