Insights Technology

Rural reprieve? Broadband on the horizon


As a computer enthusiast, I found Sen. Ted Stevens’ famed (and often satirized) description of the internet as a “series of tubes” hilarious, if not simplistic. The “interwebs” — as I affectionately call it in homage to his timeless ignorance — has defined the tail end of Generation X and practically conceived Y and Z.

Behind all the technobabble, the internet is just a glorified network to swap info. Each computer is a node in this global community. In aggregate, this digital information storehouse dwarfs any library, and is an indispensable part of our social fabric. It’s also a necessity. And rural America, for all of its advantages, desperately covets the broadband connectivity of its big city neighbors.

Despite pockets of swiftness, the U.S. overall lags far behind other countries in broadband accessibility and affordability. On bulletin boards, I frequently see contributors from other countries scratching their heads. “We can get 50+ Mbps (that’s blazing fast) for $30 a month.” I point them to a map of the U.S. That’s a lot of real estate to cover, most of it sparsely populated.

It’s not that remote rural areas don’t have access to the internet, it’s just painfully slow, like browsing in a thick, obstructive goo. Getting speedy internet to that “last mile” — the fringes of already isolated communities — is the challenge. More often than not, whatever internet is available is typified by monopolistic practices, crumbling infrastructure, and very loose definitions of “high-speed.”

My broadband odyssey has been one of experimentation and technical improvisation. When I was house hunting, broadband was at the top of the list. I confirmed that DSL was available at my address. After I seal the deal, I find out that it’s limited to 1.5 Mbps for $60/month. Problem is, that’s not enough bandwidth. The tube isn’t wide enough to deliver the content I want.

OK, I’ll improvise. I buy a prosumer (nerd gear) broadband bonding appliance that takes multiple lines and fuses them together into a single pipe. Much better. Except that I’m now paying $250/month for four separate DSL lines. Around 5 Mbps total speed. From my vantage point, that’s the technological equivalent of Yugo performance at Lamborghini prices, when I’d be content with a nice used sedan. Others are still zooming by me on the information superhighway. For reference, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downloads.

As an insider in the rural broadband push, I’ve lived through more than a few scrapes. I’m a battle-scarred veteran. In my neck of the woods, a Rural Broadband Authority has been established to investigate options and narrow the digital divide. Here’s the skinny on the available options that the Authority — and your community — might consider (or rule out).

DSL: Digital subscriber line. Basically internet piggybacked on traditional copper phone lines. Different from the old style dial-up. The problem is that speeds diminish the farther you get from a central telephone office. I’m all the way in then hinterlands, with so much signal loss that I can barely qualify. Not a good price/performance ratio, but a fairly reliable, hardwired connection. No (or very generous) data caps, so no worries about going over your quota.

LTE: Long Term Evolution. The successor to 3G. The same wireless 4G/4G LTE data service that you get on your phone. In this case, it could also be called fixed LTE, since the user is stationary. Wireless, so coverage strength varies. Potentially good speeds, but woe to the user between 5 and 10 p.m. Also deprioritizes users (sends to the back of the line) once you hit your quota, and your quota can be exhausted in a matter of days with intensive use. Definitely don’t use with Netflix.

CBRS: Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service. Not related to CB radios. Ties into LTE. Will likely be used when 5G is rolled out. 5G hasn’t even been officially defined as a standard yet, but the industry is thumping its chests. Qualcomm (remember them?) is positioning 5G service as the biggest innovation since electricity. Eat your heart out Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison?

License-Exempt Spectrum: Wireless, unused frequencies in the emergency bands (normally set aside for public safety agencies and first responders) could potentially be used for connectivity.

WiMAX: Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. Think of it as WiFi on steroids. Sometimes mom and pop operations. Coverage usually requires a direct line of sight with a tower. Speeds are lackluster, and prices are above average. Often has usage quotas that are oblivious to the real-world usage patterns of customers.

White Space: Basically uses wireless, over the air TV broadcast signals between channels (slim slivers of unused “white space”) to deliver internet. Has fantastic range, and scoffs at barriers and other impediments. Probably the most promising and widely applicable technological advancement for rural users. Microsoft has bankrolled $10 billion in this technology.

Fiber: Fiber optic uses pulses of light to transmit data. Hardwired, with extremely high speeds, but the buildout is usually cost prohibitive. USDA-Rural Development has programs to subsidize the costs and/or provide low cost loans: Possibly a good method for “middle mile” buildout, but the last mile (the absolute remote fringes of underserved areas) would need to be delivered wirelessly though another technology (maybe white space).

Cable: Poor man’s fiber. Slower speeds. Better price/performance ratio than DSL. Costly to run. I was quoted a minimum of $10,000 to run about three-fourths of a mile to my house from the main road — and that’s before I even get permission from my HOA and inconvenience all of my neighbors with microtrenching.

Satellite: An absolute last resort for many. High prices, but near universal availability. Respectable speeds in theory, but often oversold, leading to slow speeds for all during peak hours. Has a fair access policy, which throttles speeds once a quota has been reached for the month. Historically low quota thresholds. To be fair, the quotas have been significantly boosted in recent months. High latency (delay), since the signal has to be beamed thousands of miles, so a poor choice for gaming.

OneWeb: A low orbit network of 720 satellites which promises to eliminate the lag associated with conventional satellites. Great speeds and coverage in theory. Less lag. Not many particulars have been given at this time.

Loon: Hot air balloons suspended in the air to transmit internet. A Google initiative. Can be used to restore internet and coordinate relief efforts, particularly those affected by natural disasters. More situational for the time being.

Dial-Up: Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS). Think internet, circa 1995. Classic grating “handshake” sounds between the modems. Avoid like the plague. Horrible speeds, borderline unusable. Sometimes the only option.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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