Wireless in Vermont

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(Host) Commentator Timothy McQuiston reflects on cell phone service in Vermont and how it may be changing.

(McQuiston) The Green Mountains, in a sense, are our own worst enemies when it comes to communications. Line-of-sight signals demanded by the likes of radio, TV and cell phones require, well, good line-of-sight. It’s those mountains and ridges and cow-strewn hills that keep getting in the way.

It’s almost a perfect metaphor for Vermont’s economy. We love what we have, we want to conserve it, but it keeps getting in the way of doing business.

A friend of mine said recently, “As soon as someone tells me they like their cell phone service, I’m switching.”

The wireless communication companies are working like mad and spending a ton of money on infrastructure to make cell phone service work better. There are more and more players in the local marketplace. Competition tends to benefit service.

The modern Class A office space demands superb infrastructure: telecommunications, electric, T-1 lines, cable modems, and the ability to expand those services. But the office extends beyond the workspace now. Cell phones are an extension of the office. While beeper service is nearly universal across the state, wireless voice communications can be as choppy as Lake Champlain in October.

A cell phone executive told me, “It’s a challenge here.” No kidding.

The service can be temperamental in even well-developed areas or along the interstates. It makes the state not only seem like a Class B place in which to do business, it actually is a Class B place.

Companies have to register to operate cellular communications in Vermont, but that’s about it for regulation. It’s finding locations for cell sites and towers that can hold up the extension of service.

Cell sites are less intrusive than that other big ridgeline development much in the news these days – wind turbines. Vermonters are confronted, to some extent, by the desire for good communications and renewable energy versus aesthetics.

But while Vermonters have various opinions for or against projects that affect the view from the backyard, wind energy seems to be generating the most passion, and passion is never a good indicator for the future success of a project. Meanwhile, everyone seems to want better wireless communications. This is not just a business issue, of course. The average consumer is demanding reliable cell service also. But my friend hasn’t switched his cell phone service. Yet.

My guess is that Vermonters will opt for cell phone sites blended as much as possible into the fabric of the landscape, but they won’t demand total obscurity. We’ll be willing to pay that price. In the otherwise depressed telecommunications industry, the service providers are betting that users will demand better service and the providers will find a way, even in Vermont, to deliver it.

Is anyone out there listening? Yeah, you can count on it.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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