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

Despite promising new technologies and federal stimulus money, the rural U.S. remains the land that telecom forgot

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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.

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.

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