McQuiston: Last Mile Broadband

Apr 1, 2019

Just last week I was standing in a meeting room at a prominent Burlington-area hotel and I could not get onto the Internet. I went over to a window. Still nothing. I finally had to track down a password to access their WiFi.

Bad cell coverage can be bad anywhere in Vermont, and completely non-existent in many places across the state. A drive study to gauge our level of connectivity last fall along Vermont’s major roads and through our biggest towns confirmed that there are dead spots not only in the hinterland but also in Montpelier, Winooski, and even in my kitchen. They didn’t drive there, I just know it.

Unlike electricity, phones and the interstate highway system, the federal government has not thrown its full weight behind bringing broadband service to everywhere in America.

To be sure, they’ve spent billions on it, but instead of doing it themselves as they did with those other crucial infrastructure projects, they contracted out the work to private vendors - with mixed success. And the money that government and private industry have earmarked for broadband expansion has run into either unfortunate timing, not-ready-for-prime-time technology, or poorly conceived business plans.

Several years ago FairPoint had the idea to use wireless for Internet service in more rural areas of Vermont. The general idea is that if you have 4G cell service you also have broadband service. But it didn’t work out for predictable reasons: we have too many mountains and valleys and our population is too spread out to achieve profitable customer densities.

Now, as part of a plan to ensure that first responders have adequate connectivity, AT&T has contracted to bring wireless coverage to rural America, including Vermont. Of the 40-billion-dollar project, the feds are contributing 6.5 billion. The system is intended to be high-tech all the way and available to the public. The challenge here will not be all the hills and dales, but building what would have to be many more new cell towers.

Maybe they’ll come up with some clever new technology to get around those problems – but in the meantime good luck finding a hot spot.

And don’t text and drive.