Anecdote 1. The familiar chime goes off on my phone: a text has arrived. I go to the phone to see what someone has to say, and I see the rather cryptic, “Unreceived message.” Well that’s odd… cuz the sound means I just received a text, right?
I click the “Download” button to receive the text I just received (but didn’t), and it cycles away… on… and on… and on… and nothing ever comes of it. And that’s when I remember: because I have no cell service, I’m using WiFi calling on my phone. Except that, apparently, WiFi calling (or my provider) doesn’t support MMS texts. What I thought I received was either a group text or a text with an attachment. I won’t know until I drive to a coverage area and hit “Download” again. And I have to do that before the message expires. I can’t simply drive to an area with coverage and let it fix itself once it finds a signal; I have to remember to manually download the message.
Anecdote 2. I have a friend who lives in the wilds of Mendocino county in California. Like, an hour’s drive in from the nearest real road. I asked her about her internet experience way out there, and… well, she has her own way with words, so I’ll quote: “… the jump in internet access over [the] last 10 years has been stupendous. It went from none, to the dark ages, to almost the 1990’s now. (little joke) (but barely)
“I went from watching my bandwidth on a meter 12 years ago, with it failing whenever it rained or snowed and it ‘slowing down’ (read: webpage opens turtled for hours instead of minutes) to now having it take only 2-4 seconds to open a new webpage (okay, sometimes 6)… Our bandwidth now is ‘unlimited’, but Netflix (yeah, we have enough bandwidth for Netflix now!) starts spooling once we get close to the monthly re-up…
“It used to be we’d plan out what downloads we had to do later in the month (bill paying, communications) and personally throttle ourselves/use of the Net so there’d be enough bandwidth left to do those things. Driving two hours to town to send an email used to be a thing.” When she says, “used to,” we’re not talking decades ago. We’re talking, like, four years.
“Try starting a business out here. Not being able to make a freaking phone call 99% of the time.”
She’s got a satellite connection. When asked about latency, she said, “Latency? Forget about playing RPG games. Not going to happen.” And she pays about double what I used to pay for cable internet… Wait, let me think… once I got onto a new promotional cable plan, my cost was roughly cut in half, so I guess she’s paying about four times that.
I can’t think of the number of conference sessions I’ve sat in that talked about how, someday (and not too far away), we’ll all be connected to the internet, always. “Ubiquitous” was thrown around a lot. Yes, we in the audience might snicker a bit, having lived through outages, but that seemed like the biggest hole in that argument. Turns out that it’s not.
If you spend your life in Silicon Valley – or in any of the other Silicon Terroirs (Glen/Forest/Gulch/YouNameIt), you could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the world – ok, maybe not the world, but at least this country – is blessed with the same resources that grace the Bay Area.
Of course, when it comes to cell coverage, we all know about weak spots – even in cities. I moved up to Portland – Silicon Forest (no, not Silicon Rain Forest) – from the Bay, and, well within the urban area, I had horrible cell service at home. I remembered lots of dead zones for friends in years past, but that was only with iPhones and their sole carrier at the time (or so it seemed). I figured that was all in the past.
Nope. I called my provider (a major one), and they literally did a truck roll to check the service in the neighborhood. And, yup! They agreed. “Mediocre” was the word they used. And that’s where it stopped. They said that city was making it hard to add more antennas, so I checked with the councilperson that covered this. She was surprised that I was asking for more antennas – that’s not the norm – but she also said that no one has been stopped from adding coverage.
And the fingers point back and forth. And the provider really has little incentive to improve things, since the map showed that I was well covered, and, well, the maps never lie, right?
As a reminder, this was in the middle of a small, but, ostensibly, technologically savvy, city. In retrospect, I had no idea how good I had it.
25 Miles Away – Could Have Been 500
Last summer I moved out to the country. Livin’ the dream. I didn’t really move that far away – like 25 miles as the crow flies. And much of that 25 miles includes Intellandia; I’m probably 10-15 miles from them. But it might as well be 500 miles away.
- There’s no – I mean literally zero – cell coverage. In one direction, you have to drive about five miles to get a signal (there’s a dirt pullout right before the signal disappears where people stop to do their phone business). In the other direction, it’s a couple of miles over a hill. Knowing this in advance, I got a phone with WiFi calling. That way it can use the internet to complete phone calls, which sort of works kinda. That said, I still can’t do MMS messages; visual voice mail works… intermittently; and I found that I can’t change cell providers with this phone because the new provider (the one that would get, not lose, the business) assured me that the provider-specific server info for WiFi calling wasn’t on the SIM card – it was hard-coded into the phone. Who does that?? (Or was the guy mistaken?)
- There’s crappy “broadband.” My plan is apparently for 15 Mbps, and I surprisingly measured something close to that the other day. But most times, when you run an internet speed test, you get 1 Mbps download and half or less that upload. And, hey, it may be slow, but it’s unreliable. It’s DSL, so, in theory, the speed shouldn’t vary based on who else is on the line, but sometimes it’s completely dead – web pages come back unable to find servers. Even while one browser tab or device is streaming something, another tab will say there’s no connection. And those WiFi calls! – you get these 20-second gaps where you can hear the other party, but they can’t hear you. Videos rebuffer often (to the point where, some evenings, you simply can’t watch); other times they’re of horrible, mushy, slow-speed image quality; yet other times they’re fine. Local rumor is that there’s a concentrator box somewhere that’s oversubscribed, so it may take people down for a couple of minutes so it can give someone else time. Oh, and this service is almost as expensive as what my friend in the boonies pays. (And don’t get me started on their reputation nationwide for letting their networks deteriorate… The chance of them fixing that concentrator, if that’s the culprit, is nil, based on their history.)
As a result, I can no longer work reliably from home. I’ve had to rent an office in a nearby town.
Are there other options?
- Well, we’re about three miles from where cable ends, so that’s not an option.
- There’s a local fixed wireless service, and we may be barely within that coverage area (we’d have to test it to be sure). But a couple of miles in the wrong direction, and it’s not an option either. And it has to be line of sight. And there are hills and trees. (And rain.)
- I checked on satellite services (understanding their downsides), and you pay way more. (One service doesn’t put their prices online – you have to call, which is always a hard-sell red flag to me.) And – anecdote alert – I know people just outside a smallish town in eastern/central Oregon who said that, even when their satellite service worked, the customer service was horrible, and the low price they were promised never materialized, and the bill varied randomly from month to month with no explanation. Until they switched services. Which was quite the hassle. (And the original company was automatically deducting the payment from the bank account and continued doing so even after the account was closed…)
Again, my situation lies just outside a major technology area. Go a few more miles away, and your options evaporate, leaving a satellite-only precipitate.
If you’re wondering whether you can pay to get connected to something better, the answer may be, “Yes.” As it turns out, where I’m living now, it was going to cost the owner more than a couple grand to get the DSL connection. That would cover the cost of trenching to get the wires to the house. The owner is an excavator, so he was able to save the money by doing that himself, but that’s not possible for most people.
I heard another story of someone wanting cable. This person was better off and decided to fork over the 10 grand the company wanted for a connection. Now… there was an upside to that: as more local people signed up to the newly available cable, the original guy would get a credit, so he eventually got much of that (all maybe?) back. But only someone willing to be out 10K could have done that. That’s not most people out here (including me).
OK, so I had options – some of which I might not have had were I even farther away. But this is a glaring area where rural America has been left behind, and badly. People with little money end up paying way more for poor service. Or they do without. I’ve given you some anecdotes – since I can speak to my own specifics – but broadband maps show wide swaths of poor coverage (and that assumes that the maps are accurate – there were complaints with earlier mapping efforts that providers were considering their maps and rates to be proprietary).
In a time when everyone needs to be internet savvy for any kind of future, what does that mean about kids growing up rurally? Is it required to live in the city in order to be connected to the world? You read about the genius kids in Palo Alto that invent something amazing when they’re 15… and you know that that same genius kid, had he or she grown up in the country, would never have been able to accomplish that. The resources simply aren’t there at their fingertips like they are in town.
We talk about “hard work” being the key to wealth. But I’ll challenge any billionaire to spend a week on a farm: that’s real hard work, and no, it doesn’t make you rich. The kids growing up out here know how to work hard – they’ve done it all their lives. And they have an excellent work ethic; I’ve watched them at livestock shows and such, where they got up way in the early hours to get their animals in place, clean them up, feed them, and go about their normal chores – with no whining. They’ve done more physical work by 8 AM than many of us do all day. If all the “I’m rich simply cuz I worked hard” self-back-patting defenses were accurate, these kids would be millionaires any day now. But for a digital future, hard work isn’t enough: you need a connection. And most of these families don’t have anywhere near the money that flows freely in the Bay Area.
Self-Driving Cars Stop Here?
And here’s something else I wonder about. We’re on our 4th generation of cell service, but it would appear that the providers are happy serving the low-hanging fruit and leaving the tough areas uncovered. Now we’ve got a 5th generation coming, and it’s going to have smaller cell footprints, meaning more actual antennas. If we can’t be bothered to put a few high-power macrocell antennas out there, then how the heck will those areas be covered by 5G?
That becomes particularly worrisome when we think about driverless cars. Such cars will have to communicate with everything around them – other cars, infrastructure, and pedestrians. The infrastructure part means that there has to be some kind of radio service everywhere the car goes. (I’m guessing that satellite won’t do for a vehicle making decisions at 55 mph.)
If, again, the providers will be content to stick with the low-hanging fruit, then there will be no V2X coverage out here. So… does that mean that driverless cars simply won’t exist out here? Or will they always need to have a driver take-over option for when they get past the cheap-to-invest zone? You might conceive of a specialized vehicle category for off-roading where there is no signal, but what about the people that live out there? Again, I’m not that far out of town. There are way more people way farther out than I am.
I know that “government” is a bad word for some people, especially in the tech world. But we actually have a precedent for this situation, and government was – and continues to be – part of the solution.
Back when electricity to the home became a thing, companies also covered the low-hanging fruit of cities and didn’t bother with farms. So, starting in the 1920s, the federal government started providing assistance to get rural areas covered. It’s called rural electrification. And 50 years later, in the 1970s? 98% of farms had electricity. Even so, there are still projects underway to improve this today.
Meanwhile, a 2011 study said that one third of US households lacked access to broadband. (For some of these studies, broadband appears to be defined as 1 Mbps, while 15 is now considered more realistic broadband.) The National Broadband Plan aims to get 4 Mbps up and 1 Mbps down for all Americans – by 2020. That’s a far cry from what city folks get, but it’s sure better than how things are now.
So do we need a robust, coordinated rural internetification plan before the countryside gets hopelessly left behind? There are some efforts out there – some at the state level, some discussion at the federal level. I know Washington state has had some discussions in the news lately.
However we do it, we need to bridge this digital divide if we truly expect everyone (not just everyone convenient) will need coverage. Driverless cars still have to work on those Sunday drives to the countryside. And hard-working, smart kids won’t have a chance at competing for good jobs if they don’t grow up with the same technological advantages that city folks have. Since there’s not enough profit for private companies to provide this critical infrastructure rurally, do we need someone else to step up?
Rural providers (Caution: I checked my own zip code, and they said that fiber and cable were available. Maybe in some parts, but certainly not for me. So coverage may be overstated.)
Fixed wireless (They say that 90+% of Oregonians have access to 25 Mbps or faster… that might be true if you believe the marketing brochures, but, as I said, I have 15 Mbps on paper – but not in reality. I’m taking the numbers with a lot of salt.)
Wikipedia entry on Broadband Universal Service for the US
Universal Service Fund relief (apparently, only small rural providers were required to pay into it)