What’s ‘Broadband’ Done for You Lately?

[imgbelt img=lone-eagles-headquarterscro.jpg]The term ‘broadband’ is vague. Is your Internet service fast enough for your purposes? (And are your purposes all they could be?)


Making the Modern World

Thomson’s galvanometer, sensitive enough to receive the world’s first transatlantic telegraph message

In 1866, when the first transatlantic telegraph line was completed, preachers sermonized on its historic importance: humankind was now capable of sharing the “same instant of progress.” Again, in 1910, champions of new telephone technology proclaimed, “With each new user the power of the network becomes even more powerful.”

The huge potential for individual and social benefit has been at once the greatest dream and the most common sense application of universal information and communications technologies.

This very year, the number of innovative ideas focused on information technology is growing exponentially. Our hopes are pinned on access to broadband Internet access, and now through the federal stimulus package, the nation as a whole will be making a tremendous investment in supplying rural broadband.  But what does that really mean?

Broadband is a very general term referring to fast Internet access. But there’s a lot of latitude as to just how fast a connection constitutes “broadband.” The definition tends to be situation-specific, and it keeps changing as technology improves.

If you can view videos without their stopping and starting and can enjoy 2-way video and audio phone conversations without interruption, then you may have adequate broadband. If you can’t, it’s debatable whether you really have broadband service, no matter what it may be called.

In the mid 1980s long distance tolls were $18/hour; a 24kb (24000 characters per second) modem could transmit 3-5 pages of text per minute and images were generally not exchanged online at all. Then, it was illegal to get online via party lines. (Yet, even back then many of Montana’s one-room schools were cost effectively exchanging lesson plans via Dillon’s Big Sky Telegraph.)
When dial-up Internet first became available (connecting to an Internet service provider through one’s telephone line and a modem) and the World Wide Web appeared, 28kb (28000 characters per second) was about the fastest connection that users could hope for; web pages often took a minute or minutes to load. The speed of dial-up modems has increased to around 50kb today, though typically rural phone lines can only transmit at around 28kb.

A Beginner’s guide to the Internet

Diagram showing a house with DSL Internet service provided by a telecommunications company’s line

DSL (a digital subscriber line, which permits you to use the phone and the Internet simultaneously) provides Internet access at ten times the speed of dialup and is available over some phone lines. The technical limitation of DSL is that it will only work within a mile or so of the source (a digital subscriber line access multiplexer); therefore, people who live out of town are out of luck. Most rural communities today have DSL, and more and more are getting wireless DSL, which can extend up to 6 miles “line-of-site.” 

When neighbors share and are using your connection, via DSL, wireless, or cable, and your speed slows down, these are not really full-time broadband services. (When Internet providers advertise “speeds up to 8 megabits,” that generally means “only when no one else is sharing your access.”)

For example, my ranch house is 6 miles south of Dillon, MT, (pop. 4000), and I have wireless DSL for $40/month for two PCs from Blue Moon Technologies, a local Internet Service Provider run by a friend and former student of mine. (Dan Compton’s personal support is a big benefit and one big reason local Internet Service Providers should be backed by federal policy.)  Download speeds are “up to 400kb,” and upload speeds are “up to 256kb.”  Often my connection is very fast, but just as often it is disappointingly slow, like after 3 pm when the neighbor’s kids are home from school and on Youtube.

Lone Eagle Consulting, I make my living teaching online and using Internet. )

So, in addition to Blue Moon, I now subscribe to Wild Blue satellite, ($200 installation, $49/month) for 500kb downloading speed, and 128kb uploading speed. It is far more reliable and well-suited for sending and receiving large files, including videos. But due to a latency (22,000 miles to and from a satellite) it will not allow 2-way video, or 2-way audio,  so, we have retained the DSL wireless for these purposes.

On stormy days when neither wireless nor satellite will work, we can still dial-up Blue Moon. Even though it’s slow, we can get our email and do online banking, online shopping and many other tasks which have become convenient online. You might even say that these Internet features are essential, as we have come to depend on them.

Telephone companies and cable providers offer triple play bundles of phone, TV, and Internet services ranging from $75-150/month. Many cable systems offer 8 megabit connections (8 million characters per second).  Wireless technologies are evolving rapidly.

The FCC transition to digital TV will free up “whitespace” spectrum to allow for 100 megabit wireless, far better than existing wireless. But the technology and regulations are not in place yet to make this advance with the current round of broadband stimulus funding. The same is true for WiMax, which is supposed to extend 4-mile wireless to up to 40 miles. Rural options will get much better within a few years.

Individual small Internet service providers depend on federal regulations, which force the large telecommunications companies to share their high-speed landlines. Some communities have invested in their own local wireless, DSL and/or fiber optics, though monopoly telcos have tried to prohibit this, even when the telcos will not provide service. There are many policy tensions between telcos and smaller local companies seeking to bring affordable access to all citizens.

Fiber optics can be super, super fast depending on the specific technologies. But, they require running a cable to every house, which can be very expensive; the cost to customers can be many times greater than other options. Dillon now has fiber optics to the county courthouse, but there is very little understanding, yet, of the costs for extending this service, nor has there been much excitement about the potential opportunities for using it. (Once fiber optics come to town, one option for the “last mile” — to save the cost of running more cable — is using newer 100mb wireless technologies to extend this very fast Internet option to households.)

Whereas most people who live in urban areas have access to a range of IT services, that’s not so true in small towns or rural communities. Here’s a summary of the prevailing rural Internet options.

If all you have is a slow dialup connection, or a satellite connection that won’t allow realtime interaction, there are still many viable entrepreneurial opportunities. You can buy and sell on eBay along with 250 million others in over 35 countries. You can maintain an ecommerce web site at eBay, Amazon, or a thousand other service providers; potential customers can interact via fast Internet links with your site, regardless of the speed of your access maintaining the site.  Teleworkers can download work to be performed at home, and upload their finished work.

If you really need live uninterrupted 2-way video, or audio, or the ability to deliver realtime “live” presentations, then you need fast Internet access. DSL is in the middle, faster than dialup, but often not reliable enough for real-time communications.