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Got (decent) broadband? Nope, and it won't get better for another year

March 16, 2012

We live in the Bermuda Triangle.

Of communications, that is.

Cell phone service is spotty, blocked by mountains and glacial moraines and sometimes even big trees and small buildings. The one public radio station goes on the fritz at every stop sign and under the eaves of every building with Wifi and ends altogether north of the Conway Summit.

But worst of all, broadband service is slow and spotty here in Mammoth and north to June Lake (at least).

And it’s probably about to get worse until the Digital 395 project gets connected next year—if you can get it in the first place.

“We are aware of no other viable, near-term options at this time,” said Pete Able, Suddenlink’s senior vice president of corporate communications. “The solution is to increase the size or capacity of that circuit—and we believe the only viable option for doing so in the foreseeable future, is the Digital 395 project.”

His words were echoed by Verizon, which said it is waiting for the Digital 395 project too (although upon further questioning, Verizon media spokesman  Jarryd Gonzalez said the DSL in Mammoth is being upgraded so that it will increase broadband capacity “significantly.” He added, however, that it won’t happen until “the end of the year” and did not give any more details about the project and what it might mean for customers.)

Unfortunately, there is nothing customers can do. We are looking at least another year of either slow and choppy broadband or slower and choppier broadband. 

The only hope is no one comes to Mammoth or June Lake for recreation and competes with the locals for broadband—and let’s face it, we can’t afford that either.

Here’s what happened and why.

A few months ago, Verizon put a moratorium on issuing any new broadband services. Suddenlink followed by the end of last year. At the same time, the quality and speed of broadband in the Mammoth Lakes and June Lake areas in particular began to decline, starting (for most people) late last summer.

It’s all due to one thing.

“It’s like you have a 24-inch water main feeding your communities but everyone is watering tropical gardens,” said Michael Ort, the CEO of the Digital 395 broadband project that will bring high speed broadband to the region in 2013. “The pipeline was originally created to water grass, when there was just grass growing there. Now, everybody has a tropical garden.”

Ort is referring to the fact that the demand for broadband has simply—and exponentially—outstripped the local, aging cable pipelines (between Bishop and Mammoth is where the main bottleneck is) ability to carry it. Video, NetFlix, games, photo applications; all of this is placing unprecedented demand on the broadband system.

And Ort has his own frustrations. The Digital 395 project is a massive $101 million American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and state of California project that will link Mojave to Carson City with a high speed digital broadband “backbone” that will take care of a decade’s worth of possible broadband demands. It’s hard to argue that that’s a bad thing but the project runs through dozens of different sections of land, managed by dozens of different agencies with hundreds of different rules and regulations. 

It’s a world where a 10-mile stretch of the Digital 395 route located on land along U.S. 395 and covered by a 50-year-old garbage dump becomes a “historic refuse scatter”—meaning it can’t be disturbed. 

So, you guessed it; Digital 395 has to be rerouted to avoid the “historic refuse scatter.” That takes time and it means a project that could have been done this year, infrastructure wise, is still almost a year out. (Ort, who is set to break ground in Mono County in a few weeks, said he had just heard about the moratorium on new broadband services in the area when the MT called him. He said it might be possible to push the July 2013 deadline for Digital 395 up to “the first quarter” of 2013, meaning sometime early next year, but it is still too soon to tell.)

The whole thing begs the question. Why wasn’t this anticipated; either by Verizon or Suddenlink?

“Internet use is growing in virtually all parts of the country as individuals attempt to send and receive increasingly larger amounts of data to and from the Internet,” Able said. “Consider that in the areas of Mono County that we serve (Mammoth Lakes and June Lake), the total number of Internet customers has remained relatively flat, but the average amount of data used per customer has more than doubled since last July. In many parts of the country, such an increase in demand could be resolved through the construction or installation of conduits or circuits with greater capacity to the Internet. In Mono County, we aware of no resource, other than the Digital 395 project, that could provide a larger-capacity circuit in the foreseeable future.”

There are no local technical solutions, no extra services, no devices, nothing that can help customers to increase their speed and connectivity, even if they wanted to pay more for it, Abel said.

“We certainly encourage customers to contact us, so we can check to see if there might be another, local factor causing problems; and if there is, we’ll fix it.  But generally, we are finding that the issues you describe are related to the insufficient circuit connecting local networks to the Internet.”

He also said there is no waiting list for new customers, something that some locals said they heard was in place.

“We apologize for any confusion, but there is no such waiting list at this time,” he said. “Once the Digital 395 project is complete, we will start taking new orders and notify all local residents through all available channels.”

He also said that even if customers leave and give up their service, it will not guarantee that broadband service will improve, unless the demand for data also drops. If overall demand for broadband continues to grow, something Ort said is “exponentially” happening across the country, the increased demand will cancel out fewer customers, and thus, any possibility of better service.

Bottom line, the news is grim for both locals and potential residents who might want to move here and both will have to wait for a long time for new or better broadband service. 

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