Smoke Signals and Drum Beats
By Julie Reardon
When you tell people you don’t have cell service and your internet is too slow to stream, do zoom calls or even watch videos, they’ll look at you like you just admitted that you don’t have running water or electricity. Yet here in much of Fauquier and Western Loudoun Counties, within 45 to 60 miles of the White House, that is the case for much of the population. This is shameful—both Loudoun and Fauquier are wealthy counties. Of Virginia’s 130+ county and city jurisdictions, Loudoun with its 415,000 residents is the 4th most populated and ranks 5th in per capita income. But most of that growth and population is east of Leesburg and unlike the western half, is well served by internet and cell service. Fauquier is more sparsely populated with just over 72,000 residents and ranks 29th in population size but 7th in per capita income.
Long time readers of my column might recognize my description of the abysmal lack of internet and cell service where I live in northwestern Fauquier from a story I wrote about the topic seven or eight years ago. Well here it is, early in 2023 and little has progressed. Instead, local officials have raked in grant and federal money to study the problem of the lack of internet access much of Fauquier County. I’ve done my part; 4 years ago I entered into negotiations with a company that builds and maintains cell towers and leases space to providers. They broke ground early last year. Completed in July of last year—seven months ago—it sits uselessly as the county debates who gets the choicest equipment locations. I also have a metal temporary broadband tower next to it. I tell people if you squint you can pretend it’s the Eiffel towner, but it’s hideous. This unsightly quick fix was to be paid for by county grant money making it more affordable to those in my area who had no internet service until the tower was operational. This broadband service, when it works, is better than what we had, but it’s not adequate, we still have no cell service and videos buffer.
Seriously—they need to use grant money to study why many of us have no cell service and woefully inadequate internet? Nowhere was this more painfully obvious than during the enforced quarantine of the pandemic. School children were forced to stay home and attend “remote learning classes”; college campuses closed and those students returned home for remote learning, and adults tried to run businesses from home. If you overload weak and/or inadequate service many are not able to get online at all. During the mandatory quarantine I had to get up at 2 am if I wanted to get online and even then sometimes couldn’t. The only bright spot in this is the availability of Elon Musk’s new high speed internet company Starlink, that’s satellite based. But it now has a wait list and once signed up, you’re kind of on your own for installation. Not ideal for the tech challenged.
Fresh faced city and suburban dwellers who’ve recently arrived thinking they’ll be able to telecommute to their jobs are in for a rude surprise if they neglected to learn the dirty little secret out here. They rarely think to ask because, well, who doesn’t have high speed internet and cell service? Freshly moved in and unpacked, they jump on social media for help with the best internet options, and are not amused when I respond that their wireless options out here are kind of limited to smoke signals and drum beats. Unless you live in one of the three or four larger towns where Comcast offers service, there are no cable-based options like Fios, Cox or even Comcast, for most of us.
You’re stuck with expensive options that throttle you after you reach their limit. And even with a fancy high tech cell signal booster installed, you’re going to need that land line. Ours is currently out and it’s anyone’s guess when it will be fixed. The old landline equipment is obsolete and failing and Verizon, who owns it, pretends it doesn’t exist because land lines are a money loser for them. So excuse me while I sign off and go drive somewhere with better internet, because this was due at the Crier 3 days ago!