Business

Broadband in rural America: I'm not holding my breath

I live in the country amidst rich forests, abundant wildlife, clear starry nights and a silence so deep it often stuns visitors from the city. The price I pay: really crappy Internet access.

I'm a technology journalist who works at home, so I should have fast, reliable access. I don't. And while last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus package) included $7.2 billion to increase the availability of broadband in rural areas, I'm not holding my breath. Welcome to the land that telecommunications forgot.

The stimulus money undoubtedly will lead to reasonably priced, reliable broadband for some rural dwellers who currently don't have it. And normal market expansion will help others. But out here in the stunningly beautiful but sparsely populated ridges and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, as for much of the rural United States, the dream of ubiquitous broadband is likely to remain just that—a dream—for years to come.

The reason is a combination of geography, market forces, the limitations of broadband technologies and sheer bad luck.

The limits of current technologies

Many urban dwellers think of "rural" as those places at the distant edges of cities where houses are separated by a couple of acres. To me, though, those are the suburbs. In contrast, the town I live in is roughly the geographical size of Manhattan and has a population of about 1,000. And therein lies one of the reasons I don't have reliable, cheap broadband.

With wired broadband technology—DSL and cable—there must be enough customers to make it financially worthwhile for a vendor to extend service out from population centers. The nearest village is just four miles away, and even with only 1,000 residents, it has cable and DSL. However, that wired broadband doesn't come anywhere near me because I don't have enough neighbors.

Some of my neighbors who live on the ridges have access to WiMax, but the rest of us who live in the valleys don't.

"There are a lot of criteria (for extending service), not just population," says Brian Peterson, vice president of engineering at Frontier Communications, which specializes in providing telephone and broadband access to rural areas. "But we do look at the number of potential customers and how spread out they are."

Wireless technologies have more promise, but they don't work in my particular situation either. The primary reason for this is geography. Although the nearby village has long-range, high-speed WiMax service that reaches far into the country, it works only where there is a clear line of sight to the WiMax antenna on top of the village's water tower. That means that some of my neighbors who live on the ridges have access to it, but those of us who live in the valleys don't.

National carrier Sprint and partner Clearwire Communications have plans to deploy WiMax in many urban areas across the nation; their service is already available in almost 30 cities. However, Sprint and Clearwire have no plans to deploy the technology outside of urban areas.

I do get faint 3G cellular signals from Verizon and Sprint, but those signals aren't strong enough to be reliable, and even if they were, 3G is slow— typically between 500Kbit/sec. and 1Mbit/sec. (While carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile are touting their networks' recent upgrades to HSPA 7.2, a faster 3G technology, it's a nonstarter for rural areas. These carriers focus on serving large metro areas; unless you live along an interstate highway, you can't get voice or data service from them in most rural areas.)

Plus, there are limits on how much subscribers can download via 3G—usually about 5GB a month. If you exceed that limit, the cellular operators limit or shut down service.

Next-generation 4G cellular data service LTE (Long-Term Evolution) has potential, since it will be much faster and travel farther than 3G. However, while Verizon says it will start urban deployment of LTE later this year (with AT&T following suit next year), it'll be years before LTE is widely deployed in even medium-size cities, let alone in rural areas. Plus, it remains to be seen whether the cellular operators will let go of the download limits that are currently in place with 3G.

The nonsolution

Because of these technological, marketing and geographical limitations, I have been stuck for the past 10 years with satellite access, a technology of last resort that has only one selling point: It's (usually) better than dial-up. While a recent In-Stat survey found that the average U.S. broadband speed in 2009 was more than 7Mbit/sec. and cost about $39 per month, I pay $80 a month for service that supposedly provides as much as 1.6Mbit/sec. access. In other words, I'm paying twice the national average for service that is about five times slower than average, at best.

And, too often, my satellite service is not at its best. Download speeds are usually as fast as promised in the morning, but performance deteriorates significantly as the day progresses and more people log on. Sometimes at night the speed is only marginally faster than dial-up. Tech support people (obviously located on the other side of the planet) have repeatedly denied that I have a problem and have refused to help.

I've tried VoIP over my satellite connection and can testify that using tin cans connected by a string would sound better.

Plus, except for unlimited downloads between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. Eastern time, the company I use—HughesNet—limits me to 425MB of downloads a day with my plan, so I'll never be able to download even a half-hour standard-definition TV episode during normal waking hours. (HughesNet does offer more expensive plans with faster download speeds, but the maximum download limit per day for consumers is 500MB.) If I exceed the daily download limit, HughesNet penalizes me by slowing me down to dial-up speeds for 24 hours.

And satellite service has an inevitable technological problem: high latency. Latency, which refers to the time required for the data signal to travel from my house to the satellite and then back down to Earth, prevents the use of applications like VoIP. I've tried VoIP over my satellite connection and can testify that using tin cans connected by a string would sound better.

These are not just HughesNet problems. I've heard similar complaints from neighbors and friends who use WildBlue, the other consumer-focused satellite service in the U.S. The satellite industry touts itself as the answer to universal Internet access in rural areas, and, technically, that may be true. But that's a bit like placing practitioners of the medieval medical technique of leeching in rural communities that don't have doctors and claiming that provides universal access to health care.

Is there help on the horizon?

Politicians have long promised universal Internet access throughout the U.S. The reasons for this are noble: Internet access has become an essential part of economic development, which often lags in rural areas. Plus, it helps rural kids get a better education and opens opportunities such as distance learning for rural residents of all ages. And decent health care often depends on fast Internet access.

"If [medical providers] want to file Medicare or Medicaid claims, they increasingly have to do it electronically," says Professor Sharon Strover of the College of Communication at the University of Texas. If health care providers can't do that, they often can't provide health care service in a specific geographical area, she says.

Broadband in rural areas also helps local businesses and those who use those businesses, Strover adds. "I just saw a study on rural [grocery stores], and some of them are being forced to get broadband connectivity because suppliers can't supply them unless they do inventory in that way," she says.

The stimulus funds will indeed help some communities, Strover and other experts agree. However, 100 percent rural access to broadband will remain elusive for years to come.

"While universal broadband coverage is an admirable goal, it is not a feasible one for the near-term future," says Joseph P. Fuhr Jr., a professor of economics at Widener University. He cites an FCC study that calculated that truly universal high-speed access in the U.S. could cost as much as $350 billion, a number that dwarfs the $7.2 billion in the stimulus package. Fuhr says that the chances of the government making up that difference are "slim."

Indeed, the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which will be sent to Congress in March, will call for 100Mbit/sec. Internet service to 100 million homes by 2020. As groups such as the Consumer Federation of America point out, that plan will leave 30 million U.S. homes out in the cold. Guess where most of those homes will be?

Peterson of Frontier Communications claims that his company has a much higher penetration rate—about 92 percent—in the rural areas it serves than those of other telcos. Yet he agrees that getting that figure to 100 percent will be difficult. "Increasing overall penetration to 100 percent will be challenging and very costly due to the distance between locations and the diverse terrain," he says.

I'd be excited with 3Mbit/sec. service, given the woeful state of my current Internet access.

And even when broadband is deployed in sparsely populated areas, he added, it usually is slower than broadband available in the city. Because such service is more costly and less profitable for providers, they tend to deploy less expensive, slower equipment, according to Peterson.

"In our [rural] markets, the higher priority is availability, not necessarily speed," he says. "Our rural market customers are looking for high-speed Internet at 1Mbit/sec. as a necessity and are excited when we can offer 3Mbit/sec."

Yes, I'd be excited with 3Mbit/sec. service. And, as it happens, Frontier will soon be my telephone company. My current telecom provider is Verizon, which sold its landline and broadband assets in many rural areas, including mine, to Frontier last year. That deal is expected to close in early summer.

So, Brian, will I get broadband service after Frontier becomes my provider? At first Peterson was hesitant to answer, saying he wasn't familiar with my specific situation. Then he added, "I'd give it a 90 percent chance of happening in the next three years."

Wow! That's some grounds for hope. In the meantime, though, I still have the silence, the forests, the prairies, the wildlife and the night skies full of stars. When I think of it that way, I realize my situation is actually pretty good.

I can wait.

David Haskin is a country-dwelling journalist who specializes in mobile and wireless technology.

Editor's note: Responding to the author's complaints of network slowdowns and poor technical support, a HughesNet representative said: "It is our goal to ensure that technical issues do not go unresolved ... We do not want any of our customers to feel they aren't being listened to or their problems aren't being resolved." The representative offered to work with the author to address his service issues; the author has not yet had time to follow up.

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