Life in the (Sort of) Fast Lane

Arizona resident Karen Fasimpaur is off the electricity grid but very much connected when it comes to the Internet. Still, living in a remote area required her to make compromises on bandwidth and other options. And she’s one of the lucky ones, she says.

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When I moved from Los Angeles to a very rural homesite on the Arizona-New Mexico border, I knew I’d be making some trade-offs, especially as it related to telecommunications. In LA, I was accustomed to high bandwidth and instant access to services, which was important to my work in educational technology and online community building.

Where I was moving, I knew that there was no cellular service for about 50 miles and wasn’t sure what kind of Internet service I’d have available. I knew that most pieces of land in my area had only dial-up or satellite Internet available. While I wasn’t sure that would be feasible for my work, I took a leap of faith and hoped things would work out.

Imagine my delight when the property I fell in love with just happened to be one of the few that had digital subscriber line (DSL) as an option. This type of service delivers Internet over conventional phone lines, and its availability has to do with how far you are from a central switching location. 

So the first step was to get a copper phone line run from the closest phone box, which was out on the dirt road about 500 feet from our homesite, to the house. While running electrical power lines to the house proved cost prohibitive and resulted in opting for solar instead, the phone lines were much easier.

I learned that there are federal standards that classify telephones as a Title II service and assign carriers of last resort, which are required to provide telephone service to any customer that requests it. (Unfortunately, over 20 states have deregulated telephone service, removing requirements for common carriers Title II regulation. This has resulted in public safety and equity challenges in these states, especially for rural areas.

Our local telephone and Internet provider is a small cooperative, which provides services to about 7,000 rural and remote customers in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. I’d had no prior experience with rural co-ops (or any rural business models, for that matter), and over time, I have found myself both loving and hating the quirks of the service provided.

The first experience of getting a trench dug and line laid was great. It was ridiculously cheap and very easy to achieve. That was the first step. Other tasks like getting my company’s toll free 800 number moved from our old location in L.A. to our new home or getting call forwarding to work proved to be much more difficult. In many cases, I wondered if I was the only person trying to run a business from here.

The quality of our Internet service is….well, uneven. I hesitate to complain, because I feel lucky to have DSL, which is much better than dial-up or satellite, however, it is NOT “blazing fast” or what is classified as “high speed broadband,” regardless of how it is advertised.

The FCC’s recently updated definition of  “broadband” as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and up to 3 Mbps for uploads. They also say that 55 million Americans, including over half of rural people, lack access to this. I am one of those people.

Our co-op advertises speeds of up to 5 Mpsb down for fiber-enabled areas (which does not include our area) and 3 Mbps down for other areas. They call this “high speed,” though it doesn’t meet the FCC’s definition for broadband. The advertised upload speed is 0.5 Mpsb. Upload speeds are especially important for businesses and those that are adding to the web by sharing files, not just downloading.

The speeds we actually receive vary widely. Our download speed seems to average just over 2 Mbps. It sometimes reaches 3 Mbps and sometimes is below 1 Mbps. Practically speaking this means that videoconferencing or downloading streaming video through services like Netflix sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. On the positive side, our service generally exceeds 1 Mbps up.

I have at various times complained about not getting the access I’m supposed to be getting and have received different responses. On a couple occasions, support folks at the co-op said that the FCC had required that our area’s speeds be dropped. After contacting the FCC to pursue this, a manager at the co-op quickly retracted that statement, and our bandwidth was adjusted upward. Sometimes when a complaint is made, there is an adjustment, and our access speeds magically increase, though they don’t seem to stay that way for long.

Photo courtesy of Karen Fasimpaur
An outdoor WiFi access point mounted on a pole provides Internet access around the author's home and a few lucky neighbors.

We have heard unofficially that the infrastructure exists to deliver up to 10 Mbps downloads, though that level of service is not offered. This is puzzling.

Cellular telephone service would almost certainly provide faster Internet speeds. But it doesn’t seem likely that cellular will become available in our area. Several companies have done feasibility studies and concluded that it is not economically viable due to low population and traffic in the area. For the most part, I don’t miss cellular service, in part because we have an outdoor WiFi access point on our property, which is mounted on a tower providing WiFi access for approximately a half mile. (We also make this open wireless available to a few other folks near our land, since the nearest wireless is otherwise a long distance away.)

However after living here for some time now, I have realized that there is a public safety element to this as well as an issue of equity. The lack of cell service, combined with the rugged and isolated nature of our area, means that when residents are away from home, there is no way to contact someone in case of an emergency. In addition, many residents here, including those who are only here part-time or those who are economically disadvantaged, do not have landline phones, but often do have cell phones. But they cannot use those phones here, leaving them with no means of contacting emergency services.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in rural telecommunications services here was when I started getting reports from people who were trying to call me on my regular landline telephone and couldn’t get through. Sometimes, they said it just rang and rang. (Our lines have voicemail so that should never happen.) Sometimes, they got dead air. Other times, a message that the line had been disconnected.

After this happened many times, I investigated and found that there is a well-known problem with rural call completion. In short, the problem is due to least-cost routing procedures that attempt to minimize the higher-than-average cost of rural calls. The result is a failure to complete the call, without explanation.

I have to say I was shocked. I thought that in America, if you dialed a number, it would ring through to that phone. Apparently, this isn’t always the case. Needless to say, this caused considerable disruption in my business as well as that of others.

I followed the suggested procedures of contacting both my local provider and the FCC, but this is still not completely resolved. One piece of information they require is the long distance provider of the calling party, which is not always easy to get from an already angry customer. Just having to ask for this information is a burden for everyone. While I am hopeful that recent FCC actions to address this will be successful, it is a considerable problem for rural consumers and business owners.

Given all this, have I reconsidered my decision to try to run a technology-dependent business from a rural locale? No. I love where I live and wouldn’t trade it for anywhere.

However, I do hope that technology and policy will advance to give rural communities a more equitable footing. It’s in our nation’s best interest to do so.

 

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