If you want high-speed Internet access, and you happen to live in certain areas on and around Eastern Kentucky's Pine Mountain, currently there's only one thing to do: Move.
Living in a house that hangs onto the edge of Letcher County, whenever Samantha Sparkman, 21, pops open her Compaq laptop to try to surf the Internet, she has to deal with a plodding and unreliable dial-up connection. “It took me three days to download 15 songs,” she says.
Sparkman is studying to become a physical therapy assistant, so her Internet frustrations aren’t just about not being able to snag her favorite tunes. She needs to download online tests and lectures for her classes, classes that’ll be hard to complete if she doesn’t find a speedier way to link to the Internet.
(Randy and Gabe Wilson, above, sing their “Dial-Up Blues.” The Wilsons live in southeastern Kentucky.)
Across the big Pine Mountain in neighboring Harlan County, that’s what happened to James Boggs. Though he stopped taking online college courses for a variety of reasons, one of them was definitely his appallingly slow dial-up connection. “Beyond a doubt it’s impossible to do the work,” says Boggs. The 26-year-old recalls how it once took him nearly an hour to download a one-page article.
Boggs eventually ditched the dial-up. With a wife and a growing family, he decided it didn’t make sense to pay for the service and an extra phone line.
Only feet away from Boggs’ house, a roadside sign advertised cheap broadband rates via a telecommunications company called Windstream. The country’s leading rural wire-line carrier, Windstream Communications provides broadband access to rural communities. The company advertises heavily in and around Harlan County. Boggs frequently gets direct mail ads from Windstream boasting of “6 Mbps High-speed Internet.”
With a 30-day satisfaction guarantee and no sign up fee or contract required, the company is offering a good deal. Boggs, for one, is sold. But there’s a problem. Despite the sign outside his house, each time James Boggs rings Windstream to ask for the service, he’s informed broadband access isn’t available in his vicinity.
The same is true for Samantha Sparkman, who says she’s called the company about a dozen times trying to order broadband. Once, she says, a customer rep actually scheduled an appointment for a Windstream technician to come to her house and outfit it with a connection. Sparkman waited around all day, but the worker never showed.
Sparkman recently attended a 50-strong meeting of a group called Pine Mountain Residents for Broadband. James Boggs was there, too. At the meeting made up of residents fed up with not being able to get better web access, there was talk of Windstream’s not being interested in expanding its broadband coverage to Pine Mountain because the company wouldn’t be able to turn a large enough profit. “They don’t feel like they need to bring the Internet to us because there aren’t enough houses,” Sparkman concludes.
She may be right. Contacted via email, Windstream spokesperson David Avery doesn’t know what’s specifically involved with the situation at Pine Mountain, but says that Windstream, “has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy broadband service to roughly 89 percent of our voice customers. We constantly explore ways to make broadband available to the remaining areas of our network, but the costs are often prohibitive to earn back the investment at affordable rates for customers.”
Pine Mountain Residents for Broadband is determined to bring a decent Internet connection to its hilly neck of Kentucky. To this end, the group has hooked up with some other community organizations through the Web site Dialuprocks.org. There, they’ve been uploading protest videos. “I would like to have high speed Internet because I have two small grandchildren —six and ten years-old — that I feel are being left behind because they don’t have high speed Internet,” remarks one poster.
Rend Smith works with dialuprocks.org. See more comments from broadband-less Eastern Kentucky residents here.