Rural Areas Left in Slow Lane of High-Speed Data Highway
CANAAN, Vt. — For most businesses, the goal is to attract as many customers as possible. But in the fast-changing telephone industry, companies are increasingly trying to get rid of many of theirs.
Bill and Ursula Johnson are among the unwanted. These dairy farmers in bucolic northeastern Vermont wake up before dawn not just to milk their cows, but to log on to the Internet, too.
Their dial-up connection is so pokey that the only time they can reliably get onto the Web site of the company that handles their payroll is at 4 in the morning, when it is less busy. Mr. Johnson doubles as state representative for the area, and he doesn’t even bother logging on to deal with that. He communicates with colleagues in Montpelier, the capital, by phone and post instead.
The Johnsons’ communication agony could soon get worse. Instead of upgrading them to high-speed Internet access, Verizon, their local phone company, is looking to sell the 1.6 million local phone lines it controls in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The possible sale is part of an internal plan called Project Nor’easter, according to a person with knowledge of the details.
A Verizon spokesman, John Bonomo, would not comment on the plan, but said the company “continually evaluates the assets and properties in our portfolio for strategic fit and financial performance.”
Verizon is not alone in its desire to reduce the number of landlines it owns. Big phone and cable companies are reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks in sparsely populated places where there are not enough customers to justify the investment. Instead, they are funneling billions of dollars into projects in cities and suburbs where the prospects for a decent return are higher.
But those projects are unlikely to reach rural areas of Vermont and other states, leaving millions of people in the Internet’s slow lane, just as high-speed access is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. The United States already lags behind much of the industrialized world in broadband access.
The lack of broadband has preserved places like Bessie’s Diner as Canaan’s de facto meeting hall. Over burgers and turkey club sandwiches, local residents swap tidbits that, in a more wired world, might end up in e-mail and instant messages.
Helen Masson, who lost her job at an Ethan Allen furniture factory a few years ago, grumbles that the lack of broadband has made it harder for her to find work, despite taking computer classes. Mr. Johnson, sitting nearby, nods in agreement. “The staff at the statehouse shudder when I’m on a committee because they have to lick a stamp instead of pressing a send button,” he said.
Verizon has sold phone lines before. In 2005, the Carlyle Group bought its business in Hawaii. Verizon also sold 1.3 million lines in Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri in 2002.
Others have followed. In May, Sprint Nextel spun off its local phone division with 7.1 million lines and renamed it Embarq. In July, Alltel spun off its local phone group and merged it with Valor Communications.
If Verizon does sell the New England lines, it would most likely be to a smaller company or private equity group that could be even less capable of offering fast Internet access. That prospect has Vermonters fearful that the exodus of jobs and employers from the state could accelerate.
“We have companies that lose money because they don’t have broadband,” said Maureen Connolly, a director at the Economic Development Council of Northern Vermont. “We’re not a third world country. We shouldn’t have to beg for service.”
While selling off slow-growing landlines in New England may please Verizon’s shareholders seeking higher returns, the company’s plan has reignited long-simmering political and economic debates about whether the region is being left behind as wealthier states nearby pull further ahead.
The proceeds from any sale of New England lines would help Verizon pay for the potentially more lucrative fiber optic network it is building in and around cities like New York and Boston.
The network is part of Verizon’s push to transform itself into a fast-growing technology company and shed its image as a stodgy utility.
The possibility that Verizon would sell local lines is another sign of how much the phone business has changed in the last half decade. Verizon and other former local phone monopolies argue that since the cellphone, cable and Internet companies that are luring away millions of their customers are not compelled to serve remote and rural places, then they should not have to bear that burden either.
In Vermont, Verizon has broadband available on just 56 percent of its 330,000 lines, compared with 95 percent for most local phone companies, which receive substantial federal subsidies. Without the same aid, Verizon must bear more of the financial burden to upgrade its network.
“Vermont — like all rural states — has higher fixed costs of providing service,” said Polly Brown, president of Verizon Vermont, where the number of landlines has declined 9.1 percent since 2002. “You’re spreading those costs over fewer customers, who are located far and wide, and you’re dealing with topographical challenges such as mountains and a rock base.”
Residents, unions and politicians in Vermont do not dispute that the phone business is a challenging one, but they say that residents will have a harder time telecommuting or home-schooling their children. Towns like Canaan will not have access to the growing number of government records kept online, they say, and hotels and other tourist attractions will have a harder time attracting outsiders.
Take Michael and Louise Kingston, who have had a summer home in nearby Averill for the last 35 years. Owners of a grape-growing company with vineyards in Chile and California, they often cut their vacations short and return home to New Jersey because they cannot run their business on the 26-kilobit dial-up line — a speed considered fast in 1993 — in Averill.
“It means we can spend less time here, which means you spend less money here at a time when the local economy needs it,” Mr. Kingston said.
Connections are so slow that their son drives 25 miles south to Island Pond to find a broadband line. There is no cellphone service either, so when locals go to areas where there is reception, they take along other peoples’ phones to retrieve their voice mail for them. In places where Verizon does not sell high-speed Internet, some people have the option of getting broadband from their cable provider. But in Vermont, cable companies have focused on more populous towns like Montpelier and Burlington, the state’s largest city. Cable coverage in the northeast part of the state is spotty.
Several rural phone carriers have spoken to Verizon about its lines in New England, including Fairpoint Communications, CenturyTel and Citizens Communications, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Buyout firms may also be considering the business.
Rural phone lines can be profitable because the basic infrastructure was paid for years ago, there are often few competitors and subsidies from the Universal Service Fund, which helps carriers provide service to hard-to-reach consumers, can be substantial.
But the subsidies do not benefit all carriers equally. For example, Vermont Telecom, which has 21,000 phone lines in the state, will receive $24.34 a month per line in the fourth quarter from the fund, money that is credited to customers on their bills.
But as a larger carrier, Verizon will receive one-tenth the subsidy, or $2.42 per phone line. Any company that buys Verizon’s lines will inherit the same subsidies, making such a deal a less attractive investment. Verizon could compensate by lowering its sale price, at the risk of disappointing shareholders.
The economics of providing broadband in rural areas are discouraging, too. The cost of upgrading an existing copper line that runs from switching stations to remote homes can be as much as $5,000, according to the National Exchange Carrier Association. Such costs are prohibitive for phone companies, which typically want to make back their money within three years, said Victor Glass, the director of demand forecasting at the carrier association.
Though frustrations with Verizon run high in places like Canaan, the alternatives are more alarming. Since it took over Verizon’s lines in Hawaii, the Carlyle Group has had billing problems that caused a fourfold spike in consumer complaints.
Carlyle’s experience could presage what rural areas like northern Vermont might face if Verizon departs, particularly if the buyer sharply cuts costs and jobs.
“We would rather deal with Verizon because there’s a process in place and people up and down the food chain that we know,” said Darlene Stone, an operator at a Verizon call center in South Burlington and chief steward in the Communications Workers of America, which represents 135 Verizon employees in Vermont. “Private equity funds are not people who are going to be interested in our opinions.”
The possibility that a sale could lead to worse service has put regulators in the uneasy position of trying to pressure Verizon to do more while not alienating the company, which invested 37 percent less in its network in Vermont last year than in 2001.
In 2005, the Public Service Board fined Verizon $8.1 million for providing inadequate customer service in Vermont. This year, regulators also got Verizon to agree to expand its broadband coverage to 80 percent of its phone lines by 2010.
That holds out some hope for isolated areas, but there is no guarantee that any particular customer, like the Johnsons, will be among the 80 percent and there is no guarantee that Verizon will still be in Vermont by then.
Alternative broadband providers who could fill that gap face problems, too. Jake Marsh, who runs Island Pond Wireless, a company that beams high-speed Internet signals over strings of antennas, has signed up 250 customers and has a waiting list just as long. But to expand, he is counting on towns getting state funds to help defray the installation costs.
Yet officials in Norton, 15 miles west of Canaan, could not download the 20-page grant application because their dial-up line was so slow.