For many El Dorado County residents, one of the most vexing aspects of the telecommunications infrastructure is its seeming arbitrariness. They rightfully wonder why folks just down the road — or in some cases immediate neighbors — have access to broadband Internet while they’re stuck with dialup or the undesirable choice of having to sign up for satellite Internet service.
It simply doesn’t make sense. It would be like those neighbors getting electric power while those who by the mere misfortune of their address must generate their own or live like the early settlers.
The reason is the county’s incumbent local exchange carrier, AT&T, relies on a less than robust technology to provide broadband to those able to receive it: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). DSL transmits digital data over copper cables that were not designed to carry data but rather standard, plain old analog telephone service. Since copper cable — and particularly aged, pair gained cable that’s plentiful in El Dorado County — isn’t optimally designed to carry digital data, DSL data has a hard time moving over the cable. After just a few miles from the central switching office, the data stream falls apart and can’t deliver reliable broadband service.
In the telecom industry, DSL’s fragility is part of a bigger problem known as the “last mile problem.” In short, the last mile problem refers to systemic shortcomings in the nation’s telecom system. Telcos are able to build vast networks of major transmission lines and trunks, but they can’t seem to build a complete system that reaches all homes and businesses in their service areas. It’s a truly odd circumstance that begs serious analysis. Why, by comparison, is there no last mile problem in the electric power industry? Power distribution goes over high voltage transmission lines to substations and distribution systems that bring it to all consumers. One never hears of a “last mile” problem in electrical power systems despite physical parallels to wire line telecommunications systems. Why is that?