Tuesday, July 27, 2010

USA - Hills and low population density in Vermont present real challenges for political promises of broadband

[washington post] Marlene and Mike McCarty, real estate brokers who do much of their work at home less than four miles from the Vermont Statehouse, say they spend hundreds of dollars and hours each month on things they wouldn't have to if they had broadband Internet access.

Despite promises for years by state officials and phone and cable companies that they would have broadband by 2010, they're still waiting. Now Vermont is in the heat of a gubernatorial campaign, and the candidates are making a new round of promises about broadband and fixing Vermont's spotty cellular phone coverage.

"I'll believe it when I see it," Mike McCarty said.

Experts say Vermont's mountains and hills block wireless signals. Its sparse population of about 622,000 makes stringing cables to widely scattered rural homes and businesses too expensive to be profitable in many areas. The upshot is that Vermont has struggled to keep up with the information age.

"In most rural areas you have a very challenging business proposition for broadband," said Christopher Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. That state agency, created in 2007, is promoting Vermont's efforts to expand both broadband and cellular phone service statewide.

"That doesn't mean it can't be done," Campbell added. "It has been done. It's been done in Vermont. It's even possible that if we waited long enough somebody would figure out how to do it all without any help. The problem is we can't afford to wait."

It's difficult to quantify exactly how much broadband and cell phone coverage there is in the state. On broadband, estimates range up to 90 percent.

A state map shows the McCartys and their neighbors have broadband - but they don't yet.

On cell service, Campbell said, coverage is affected by everything from distance from a tower to the strength of an individual user's battery, so it's hard to measure.

But help has been coming, Campbell and other officials say, and Vermont is making progress - just not fast enough for some.

The VTA and Internet service provider Sovernet Communications, based in Bellows Falls, announced this month that they would use a $33.4 million federal grant to build a 773-mile fiber-optic backbone extending from southeastern to northeastern Vermont.

The object is to build the so-called "middle mile" of broadband Internet service, allowing schools, state buildings and community centers to hook up to the main trunk and, it is hoped, allow private-sector providers to split off it and deliver the service out along the dirt roads - the "last mile."

Vt. broadband Internet access: Where is it?

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