By Guy Page
Despite unprecedented internet use, Vermont’s connectivity remains stable. The state’s power grid is working fine and the cost of electricity is very low. Unemployed Vermonters should get their first checks pretty much on time despite UI applications being processed through the antiquated mainframe computer at the Vermont Department of Labor. After the pandemic, Vermont schools and workplaces will never be the same.
Those are four big takeaways from the update state of Vermont executives for electricity, communications, and computer operation and security gave the Vermont House Committee on Energy and Technology in a Zoom teleconference yesterday.
“A question we’re getting a lot is, ‘with the increased traffic, is it going to break the internet?’” Clay Purvis, director for telecommunications and connectivity for the Department of Public Service, said. “The answer is no, that’s not something that has happened yet. The major carriers say they can handle the traffic they are seeing. They are seeing longer peaks, different times of peak usage.”
Carriers have suspended disconnections, waived data caps, and created wi-fi hot spots for non-customers to access nearby customers’ modems for free. Families with school-age children can get connected at low or no cost.
But Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, a champion of rural internet use, flagged a problem: “Residential usage in places that can’t access high speeds isn’t necessarily smooth sailing.”
“That’s been a longstanding problem we’ve been trying to address” since before the pandemic, Purvis answered. “At the risk of sounding callous, the pandemic is going to highlight for America the real effect of the digital divide. People are used to using the internet at school or at work, and they could say, ‘I don’t really need it at home,’ but now we’ve taken that away.”
And that’s a problem because the State of Vermont has mandated that education happen at home. “The government has an obligation to make that feasible,” Public Service Department Commissioner June Tierney said. She will use the pandemic as a “battering ram” in Washington, D.C., to secure more funding for high-speed residential service everywhere, she said.
One lawmaker asked Purvis if Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites may soon provide high-quality internet. He called nearterm LEO deployment something between a “Hail Mary pass” and “promising.” Alas, “promises are promises until they are fulfilled,” he said.
Power grid runs smoothly, electricity cheap
Among pandemic woes facing Vermonters, expensive, unreliable electricity is not among them. New England grid operators report plenty of reliable, low-cost power. Natural gas is cheap. Spring runoff is pushing hydro plants to full capacity. Longer days mean more solar power. With workplaces and schools closed, demand is low. At 11 a.m. Friday morning, the wholesale power price in Vermont was 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour — about half the usual price, and the lowest in New England.
Old DOL computer survives unemployment application crush
Vermont’s Agency of Digital Services Secretary John Quinn admits one worry that kept him awake at night was whether the mainframe computer at the Department of Labor would process an unprecedented number of applications for unemployment insurance. It did.
“The main frame has never seen loads like this,” Quinn said. “It’s a miracle that it has been able to do what we’ve asked it to do, given the number of claims going through.” There was a backlog. One particularly busy day the DOL phone line registered 40,000 busy signals. Nevertheless people will “get checks pretty close to on time, if not on-time,” he said.
Thanks to a few weeks of lead-time planning before the first stay-at-home orders were issued, state employees’ transition to working at home has run fairly smoothly, “We’re seeing a 300% increase in using Zoom in the last two weeks, Quinn said.
Like Tierney, Quinn thinks the pandemic has created awareness about the possibilities of remote work. “Looking longterm, this will absolutely change the way we work as state government,” he said.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.