Verizon’s $200 Million Change of Heart – Is it For Real?

I have to applaud Verizon for stepping up its investment in broadband deployment throughout Massachusetts. The new plans announced a few weeks ago could mean that more people in more places will have access to economic opportunity, education and the information they need to participate in our democracy.

This is especially true here in Western Massachusetts, where Free Press is based. A full one-third of the towns in Western Mass. have no access to high-speed internet, while many other communities have limited access. Many of our employees who spend their days fighting for Internet freedom and Internet access for all, go home and can’t get online or depend on dial-up connections.

So Verizon’s announcement is an encouraging sign. Some broadband is always better than no broadband. But the fact that we’re celebrating the possibility of getting low-end DSL also points out just how far we have yet to go to compete on the world stage were many countries have faster speeds, more choices and lower prices.


Timing Is Everything

While Verizon’s investment in broadband deployment across Massachusetts is welcome, it is hard not to be suspicious about the timing of this announcement. A cynic might call this a calculated 11th-hour intervention to try to stave off a bill pending in the state legislature (HB 4311) to foster competitive broadband service and a public infrastructure project that is much needed in Western Mass.

Verizon’s announcement comes just days before a landmark forum in Western Mass — with Sen. John Kerry and two FCC Commissioners — where citizens, policymakers and broadband experts will discuss a bold new plan to connect all of Western Massachusetts to real high-speed Internet. (UPDATE: This event has been canceled due to weather and will be rescheduled soon.)

Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick proposed important legislation that would invest $25 million in taxpayer dollars to build the foundation of a high-speed internet system to connect every unserved community in Western Massachusetts by 2010. These are communities where Verizon offers phone service, but have long resisted offering broadband.

The timing of the new announcement may indicate that Verizon wants to derail the legislation. I hope not. The Patrick plan is too important. Even if Verizon delivers on all of its new promises, the citizens of Western Mass. will still need the high-speed network that HB 4311 promises.


What You Should Know About Verizon’s Plan

In many ways, Verizon’s announcement actually demonstrates the need for a robust, publicly funded network and makes HB 4311 even more relevant.

  1. Verizon plans to invest the majority of this $200 million in bringing fiber optic internet service (FIOS) to communities in Eastern Massachusetts, while deploying DSL, an older and slower technology, to Western Massachusetts. This is dinosaur technology that is not nearly fast enough for high-quality online video, cable TV, or other emerging technologies. DSL may be fine today, but it is tomorrow’s dial up, only more expensive. We should find ways to achieve parity across the state, ensuring that from Boston to the Berkshires, all Massachusetts households have a high quality Internet connection.
  2. Verizon’s plan would only offer DSL service to two-thirds of the towns targeted by the legislation currently being considered by the Commonwealth—and likely not everyone in these town will be served. Verizon’s announcement confirms that without public investment Western Mass can still expect to get second class service.
  3. Without HB 4311, the new Verizon DSL customers in Western Mass. will almost certainly be stuck with a monopoly provider that has no obligation to provide competitive access, competitive pricing or “build out” that guarantees service to every home. Additionally, Verizon’s monopoly would leave residents of Western Mass. to the whims of one company that can block, filter and discriminate against content that competes with its own services. Public service requirements remain paramount under any scenario. HB 4311 needs to include consumer protection principles as conditions to be applied to private carriers who wish to utilize the state-owned infrastructure.

At the end of the day, it’s good that Verizon is waking up and offering to serve the communities it has long neglected. But this should not be the end of our broadband ambitions. On the contrary, this should motivate us even more to pass HB 4311 with the needed consumer protections, reach out to Verizon as a partner with the new public infrastructure, and work to close the digital divide across the state. If HB 4311 is implemented, we could bring fiber-to-the-home service to many of residents of the 32 unserved communities, and ensure those living there have a choice of Internet service providers. HB 4311 can create a level of competition not seen in most of Massachusetts’ communities — competition that ultimately benefits the entire state economy.

Verizon’s plan to offer some service to some communities in Western Mass should not derail the bold plan put forward by the Governor and Western Mass. legislators to connect every unserved town in the state with a high-speed, state-of-the-art network. The Massachusetts Broadband Bill, with robust consumer protections in place, is our only real hope to connect Western Mass.

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