The Startup
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The Startup

The Cellular Space Race is Leaving Rural America Behind

Never mind 5G — it’s spotty service we need to prioritize.

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash

It was a flat tire that really laid bare the challenges besetting cellular phone coverage in the US.

Luckily we got to a gas station before the nail we’d driven over had truly deflated it. We were in the town of Lake Placid, NY, not far from its center, opposite a diner and near a big market. My partner, who uses AT&T, called his insurance on his cell. Before managing to finalize towing to the nearest tire dealer, the call cut. He had no service now. When a bar or two of signal returned, he tried again. The call cut once more: no service (and this time, it didn’t come back). So he went into the gas station’s store to see if they had a phone he could use.

And that’s when it hit me. There’s so much hype about 5G — the lightning fast speeds and capacity that will transform the way we live, work, trade and consume entertainment. And yet here we were, in the middle of a town that’s twice hosted the Winter Olympics, forced to seek out a landline because of a lack of signal service.

Ironically, I actually had a bar, sometimes two, (sometimes LTE, but mostly edge). I say this was ironic because I was on T-mobile — a big mistake. I’d been seduced by the seemingly impressive and expansive coverage map I’d seen on its website and the reasonable ($40) monthly package for tourists when I’d bought a SIM in NYC a few weeks before. I should have taken the meagre bars of signal in Manhattan as an omen for what was to occur in Vermont, though.

Of course I was expecting lengthy stretches of lonely road through forest to be signal-less. What I wasn’t expecting was for there to be “No Service” on the top lefthand corner of my iPhone in several towns — even Brattleboro, where only around the Co-op did I manage to get some, finally.

There were some areas of Vermont where T-Mobile passed the baton to AT&T, and I received the latter’s service. But in spite of it claiming to be 4G, browsing was glacially near-dial-up kinda slow. This wasn’t surprising: I would imagine that serving its rival’s customers with super fast internet is not a priority for AT&T. That’s fine if, like me, you’re a tourist on a road trip (assuming you don’t get a flat!). But if you live in these parts, it must be darn frustrating.

I’m all for innovation, and for the possibilities that 5G can bring for business and daily life. But as we inch towards its implementation, let’s not forget that, outside of big cities, there is still serious work that needs to be done to ensure reliable but more basic coverage. Invest in 5G infrastructure and the development of 5G-compatible phones all you want, but also pay attention to the rural areas (and towns!) that appear to have been left behind. If Mozambique and South Africa and the myriad other African countries I’ve been to can get it right, then America — the world’s cellular superpower — sure can.



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