Time to Start Thinking About a Rural Bandwidth Assocation?

Indeed, it's a wired world. The new e-conomy provides jobs and opportunities for anyone with a bit of ambition, right? Well, yes . . . as long as you live within 18,000 feet of a telephone switch.

Affordable, high-speed Internet access via technologies such as cable modem and DSL is terrific. Moving from the 40+ Kbps that so- called 56Kbps modems offer to the far greater speeds of cable and DSL creates a much more satisfying experience when you download big files. (Imagine how much "fun" the dial-up crowd had downloading Service Pack 1's—SP1's—89MB.) But it isn't just a difference of degree that separates high-speed from dial-up access: more and more Web content is simply unavailable to dialers—and, as a result, we really are becoming a country of e-haves and e-have-nots.

No matter where you are or how you access the Internet, the experience of buying books from Amazon or shirts from L.L. Bean is pretty much the same—whether at low or high speeds. But viewing streaming content isn't, as I learned a few weeks ago when I tried to gather information about the new Microsoft .NET announcements. Microsoft's site offers a streamed version of Bill Gates' keynote that introduced and explained the .NET strategy. I watched the keynote on a dial-up connection—and it wasn't a pretty sight. Because the Web site offered the video only as streaming content, I couldn't just click a button to download the presentation, go away for a couple of hours, and then view a pre-stored, high-quality video later. Instead, I had to watch the presentation creep down the phone lines and onto my screen. I must say that I was incredibly impressed by how much image Microsoft can display over that phone line—the fact that any moving image, with sound, can transfer at less than 56,000 bps is, quite honestly, stunning. But the sound was often barely understandable, and the image quality never really rose above the "lens-smeared-with-Vaseline" level. In short, if you don't have a fast connection, don't even try to access this content—for reasons of quality rather than quantity. In some ways, downloading SP1 is the same story: many dial-up users won't even be able to keep their dial-up connections active long enough to pull down that much content. (The slower but more reliable alternative is to order the service pack CD-ROM from Microsoft. And in case you wonder how my connection stayed up long enough to download the service pack, I used a persistent 56Kbps frame-relay connection that stays up all the time. All I needed was the patience to download 89MB.)

Why all this talk of high-speed access? I've just cited two simple examples of Web content that is, for the most part, unavailable to anyone not blessed with cable and DSL access, creating an "Internet caste system." As of this month, 48 million homes in America can potentially get cable modem; that's 44 percent of all households. (Only 3 million have actually chosen to get cable modems, according to Cable Datacomm News. And as anyone who's tried to get DSL knows, DSL coverage rates are far smaller.)

Although we've heard about the growth of telecommuting for years, employers will logically be more willing to let employees telecommute if the infrastructure to support good home-to-office communications exists. Will knowledge workers find themselves having to choose homes based partially on whether their neighborhood can get cable modem or DSL?

Worse yet, will poorer, rural areas find that they're doomed never to attract new high-tech businesses, ensuring that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Throughout history, regions, cities, towns and villages have seen their fortunes rise and fall when transportation technologies, such as railroads and highways, realign a nation's trade routes.

Perhaps the problem of bandwidth-challenged areas will simply work itself out, but I tend not to think so. Rural areas lagged far behind more densely populated areas in that staple of modern life, electricity, until the government stepped in to create the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Those same areas probably wouldn't have telephone service other than the most basic party lines, had the federal government not worked in the 1950s and 1960s for what was then called "universal telephone service." Power companies and telephone companies are by no means "bad" for not initially serving less-populated areas. They've got to make a profit and keep shareholders happy. Simple business logic would leave big parts of the country dark and incommunicado. The government stepped in because its objectives are different.

DSL will never serve people who are more than 18,000 feet from a phone switch. Cable might serve just about every household, but the cable companies would have to put in a lot of new infrastructure to serve everyone. Will business logic support that? I doubt it. Satellite dishes are nice in theory, but they offer high speed only on the downlink, so they won't do the job. One possible answer is the wireless system Gigabit Wireless offers, but that's a yet-to-be-proven technology.

Don't misunderstand me—universal high-speed access isn't something that we need just yet. But the importance of the Web and Internet access in general grows quickly, often more quickly than we expect, and a bit of planning now could head off problems in the future. We could let bandwidth inequities create "ghost towns," as changes in transportation lanes have done. Or we could step in, as we did with electricity and telephones, and ensure that the entire country benefits.

After all, remember who created the Internet—the US government. And every US taxpayer paid for it. We all ought to get the rewards.

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