The Internet may seem a massive thing, the province of a few hackers who know their way through the labyrinth of codes and wires. In fact, it’s a network of networks, a system of nodes that resembles the power grid. It takes in inputs here and issuing outputs there, extending like a spider web all over the planet. By now, more than 25 years after the Internet was made public, we have every right to expect that the system should be available to everyone everywhere. In some countries it is. Japan, for instance, is blanketed with high-speed Internet service. Several European countries upload and download speeds are many times faster than here in the United States.
The problem is, as various trunks of the Internet have become privatized, provided by cable and telephone companies, questions of profit and loss enter the picture. Those private companies have naturally found that it doesn’t quite pay to bring high-speed Internet service out into the countryside. The result is a vast gulf between cities and rural places in terms of broadband coverage. Given that so much of our economic activity takes place online, this means that people who choose to live out in the country are at a disadvantage.
As a recent report from Missouri notes, to name just one example, farmers who live only an hour’s drive from St. Louis lack the Internet capacity to stream videos or upload photos. And for that glacially slow service, they must pay upward of $175 a month. For business uses such as researching commodity prices and applying for loans, the Internet might as well not exist for them.
There are ways to get across this gulf, however. In the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, farm families recently formed a cooperative to build a localized network of satellite dishes and 90-foot-tall towers. The network wasn’t exactly cheap, at $200,000, but averaged out over the 800 or so subscribers who joined, it has proved possible to finance and maintain it at a reasonable cost of about $100 a month. This is more
than many city-dwellers pay, but at least it brings some service where there was none before. In that Missouri report, similarly, a customer-owned, cooperative has delivered fiber-optic Internet service to some 15,000 rural customers. Fiber-optic installation is expensive, costing about $30,000 to lay a mile of cable. The Co-Mo cooperative worked around that by stringing cable along existing utility poles. As a result, it has been able to hold subscription costs down to $50 a month.
More densely populated rural areas are better able to make use of fiber-optic cable than more isolated ones. In Northampton, England, for instance, farmers who were tired of promises of faster service that were never made good took matters into their own hands. A local contractor dug out a ditch, the farmers laid in cable, and off they went. In some instances in Britain, local networks of this sort have been able to deliver connection speeds of 1,000 Mbps to farmers. It was at the equivalent of $50 a month. That speed is almost 50 times greater than the average British household receives.
A slightly more Rube Goldbergesque solution, meanwhile, comes from Orcas Island, Washington, where the small community of Doe Bay found itself without Internet service for 10 days when an underwater fiber cable owned by the phone company was severed. The area is remote but also fairly close to the heavily settled urban areas of Vancouver and Seattle. Local DIYers put up a network of radios pointed line-of-sight to a microwave tower on the mainland about 15 miles away. The microwave link, located atop a water tower, was licensed at a cost of about $11,000. Four years into the local network, the Internet has arrived faster than ever before. This is with fewer outages and technical problems. Intriguingly, by the way, the DIYers used a drone to locate that optimal line-of-sight location.
Longer-distance but low-tech (and thus inexpensive) networks have also been built using Wi-Fi links. Wi-Fi signals degrade rapidly after about 100 feet unless they are amplified, so local solutions typically require repeaters. Using two-directional antennas, one pointed at the point of sight behind and the other at the point of sight ahead, networks can be extended indefinitely. One in Peru extends for more than 300 miles. A series of joined Wi-Fi networks blankets the entire Indian state of Kerala. Speed need not be sacrificed, either. A good Wi-Fi network with adequate amplification can deliver connection rates of 54 Mbps. The more nodes there are on the network, though, the slower the system overall.
Existing Internet satellite systems, which are agonizingly slow, rely on line-of-sight. A workaround in some rural areas, especially if one lives near a cell tower, is to tether a network to a cell phone. This is a comparatively slow solution, and an expensive one, but a solution all the same. Overall, in most places, the best solution is likely to be the one the good people of the Annapolis Valley and Doe Bay employed. A company erects a local microwave tower and anyone within line of sight of the thing connects to it for a monthly fee. How high that fee is, of course, depends on several factors. It requires some good homework on the part of would-be entrepreneurs and investors.
For those who say that fast Internet may just have to be one of the things you sacrifice by living in the country, the cost of distance and tranquility, it should be remembered that only 80 years ago, a mere 10 percent of rural American families had access to electricity. Twenty years later, thanks to a massive combination of public and private investment, only 10 percent of rural American families did not have access to that essential utility.
The good news is that the current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has urged that broadband connectivity be seen as an essential service akin to electricity and water. Funding for rural broadband should be included in programs for infrastructure renewal and development. In June of 2017 Perdue announced that the USDA was awarding cooperatives in Texas, Iowa, Illinois, and California a total of $43.6 million to add more than 1,000 miles of cable to existing networks. For example, a $6.5 million loan going to Coon Valley Cooperative Telephone Association to install 216 miles of fiber out into the west-central Iowa countryside.
Future Internet Technology
Naturally enough, some private utilities are lobbying against any such spending. So far none have volunteered to pick up the burden of bridging the rural Internet divide. However, there’s a flicker of promise. In a joint project, Apple and Boeing are building a new near-space satellite system that will bring high-speed Internet everywhere. For its part, Microsoft recently announced that it is experimenting with sending Internet signals over the white-space spectrum. This is the unused bandwidth between television channels. That technology has the virtue of speed and is far less expensive than fiber-optic cables and even wireless.
There’s another flicker of promise in an inexpensive technology. Providing multi-gigabit Internet service using modulated radio signals with existing power lines. In effect, the signals are amplified as they travel along power lines, which are just about everywhere you look.
“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed,” so quipped the noted science-fiction writer William Gibson more than 30 years ago. Evening out that distribution will require a good dose of leadership and public/private partnership, and it remains to be seen whether, in a time of squabbling and inaction, such things will ever happen. In the meanwhile, though, there’s plenty of work for hackers and makers to do. One approach might be to set the problem for local county high school students; if they’re able to design a good working Internet system, after all, they may not have to leave, as so many rural young people now must do in order to find work.
As for my new friend on that California mountaintop, he’s now looking into the possibilities of bringing Wi-Fi up to his little community. But, he’s got a secret backup: He and his wife are also ham radio operators. That’s the subject of another article, but suffice it to say, as he told me, that after earthquakes, heavy snowfalls, and other things that knock down phone service, the couple is much in demand. We all need to communicate. It’s just that those who choose to live away from it all have to holler just a little louder—or do it ourselves.
This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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