Al Gore took a lot of heat for his slightly inflated version of his role in the Internet's beginnings but, whatever else you may say about it, the previous Administration at least appeared to be trying to jump-start the Internet. The current masters of the universe seem to think the "invisible hand of the marketplace" will cause broadband to sprout like kudzu throughout the land, without (or in spite of) needless interference from government.
The Federal Communications Commission, accordingly, stood aside as the Bell companies devoured everything in sight, pausing between gulps to say that new broadband networks would be coming soon. But while high-speed Internet use by U.S. businesses and households rose 34 percent in 2004 to 37.9 million lines, according to FCC figures released last week, the U.S. ranks 16th in broadband use among major nations.
Digital subscriber line, or DSL, service increased 45 percent last year to 13.8 million lines. Cable modem use climbed 30 percent to 21.4 million lines. Other Internet connections using wireless and satellite increased by 50 percent to 500,000 last year, the FCC said, while use of optical fiber and powerlines rose 16 percent to 700,000.
In a column published in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin vows that broadband deployment is his "highest priority."
Perhaps, but that's not of much comfort to the millions of Americans still without broadband service -- not all of them in Short Pump, Virginia, or Happy, Texas. Some are in "undesirable" big-city neighborhoods, others in affluent suburbs that for one reason or another aren't wired for DSL or cable and some are just in-between, traveling, vacationing or working outside the office.
The United States is a pretty big place, after all, and the natural inclination of any businessperson is to concentrate his service where it will reach the biggest number of potential customers with the lowest possible delivery costs. These days, that generally means that downtown areas and middle-class neighborhoods are the most likely to have broadband service from either a cable company or the local telephone company, or, as is often the case, both.
And everyone else? Well, they are mostly out of luck. There's no doubt things are changing and new services are coming. Verizon and SBC are digging up streets throughout the land to install fiber to the home so that they can compete with cable system by delivering high-definition video. Of course, almost all of this activity is in areas where cable and the telcos already provide broadband. It does nothing for those in unserved areas.
While there is no shortage of complaints about DSL and cable Internet services, the situation is much worse for those who can't get broadband at all.
"The Internet is increasingly designed to be used with a high speed connection," said Mark Huffman, a ConsumerAffairs.com contributing editor who moved to a rural area on Chesapeake Bay a few years ago. "Every site is loaded with rich media. If you are on dial-up, its very hard to use the Internet. It becomes very frustrating."
Working with Huffman, we explored various methods of getting broadband service where none now exists. Contrary to what broadband providers might think, Huffman found a great deal of interest among residents of his somewhat sleepy village.
"In my county there is no broadband available, other than satellite. I can tell you that every business owner I talked to about trying to bring in wireless was enthusiastic about the idea, and willing to pay a premium price to get it, if they could," Huffman said.
Here are a few of the services we explored:
Verizon Wireless Broadband
We found this expensive ($80 per month) service to be virtually useless, whether in the sticks or under the Capitol dome. We could not get it to work in the Washington, D.C., New York or Los Angeles metro areas. It didn't work in the St. Louis airport or at the beach in Delaware, to pick a few other examples. Where does this thing work, we wondered? Answer: we don't know. See A Test of Verizon Wireless Broadband for all the gory details. Warning: Sprint has announced it is deploying the same technology. Buyer beware.
Unlike the Verizon wireless card, some wireless broadband providers offer what's called "fixed wireless" -- meaning it's not mobile. This involves line-of-sight microwave transmission. Translation: towers. If you are lucky enough to have such a service in your area, it may be the answer if you are in its primary coverage area and don't have trees, mountains or other obstructions blocking the signal path. It can work well, we're told. We were not able to find any services we could test but we heard from one consumer who's quite happy with her experience.
"We had satellite-based Starband, but found it slow and stupid about multiple users," said Catherine of Sparks, Nevada. "So we got wireless broadband from Amigo and we are very happy with it."
"The thing is that we essentially have a personal ISP -- the guy who runs our area for Amigo.net knows us, our tech needs and is very responsive (unlike our prior DSL experience elsewhere with Verizon). Reminds me of when we used to have our power from a rural electric coop -- a much friendlier experience!"
A T-1 is old technology but very stable. It is provided over a double pair of plain old copper telephone lines and is available literally anywhere in the U.S., if you're willing to pay for it. Line-haul charges are steep outside major urban areas. The speed is about the same as an average cable connection. Installation takes months and a long-term contract is required.
A few years ago, driven nearly mad by Cox Communications' extremely sporadic service and unable to get DSL in our neighborhood, we had a T-1 installed at our home by a D.C. telecommunications provider who asks not to be named (hey, we have enemies). The cost: $600 per month. This may sound like an extravagance but we work at home quite a bit of the time and reliability is essential.
Obviously, a T-1 is impractical for consumers and, in many cases, even for technology-dependent businesses, as we learned when we tried to price out a T-1 for Huffman.
We shopped around for a T-1 and found nothing under about $800 per month. We were dubious of that quote since every other provider wanted about $1,200. This obviously isn't a practical solution for most individuals or small businesses.
Still trying to get Huffman up and running, we surfed over to DirecTV and found them offering a variety of consumer- and business-grade packages under their DirecWay brand. This is not the old satellite Internet that used a satellite for the downleg and a telephone connection for the upleg -- some pretty cool spread-spectrum technology handles the upleg. The business-grade package we bought delivers speeds comparable to DSL. There was a $1,000 installation charge and the monthly charge is about $99. For a business, this is cheap. Consumer-grade packages start at around $50.
Don't say we told you this but you can buy the consumer package and get a geekish friend to put up a Wi-Fi connection that your neighbors can use. Maybe you can get them to chip in on the installation and monthly tariff.
At the moment, DirecTV has the market pretty well to itself although there is a new player that hopes to make some noise later this year, we're told.
In the past, we have received some really bitter complaints from consumers who found various satellite Internet services annoying. There's no question that wireless communications will almost always be somewhat less stable than wired; it's the nature of the beast. Satellite transmissions are in the Ku band -- very high frequency and thus more prone to interference from rain and snow. Until the laws of physics are changed, you can expect service degradation during bad weather.
Then there's the little matter of the speed of light. The communications satellites are 26,000 miles out in space. A signal has to go up from your dish to the bird and the downleg signal has to come back down. That's 52,000 miles round trip. Look up the speed of light and you can do the math; it works out to a noticeable split-second delay between the time you click your mouse and the time the signal hits the router on the bird. Is this a problem? We'd say that once you understand what's happening, you can make a mental adjustment to allow for it.
We have been around satellite communications a long time and respect it greatly. It is amazingly effective and has the lowest environmental overhead you can imagine -- no wires, no digging, no towers, very slight power consumption. OK, some might find the dishes ugly but that's an aesthetics argument. Personally, we find utility poles about as ugly as anything. Dangerous, too. We spent an afternoon using the DirecWay feed and found it as good if not better than the T-1's we use at our office and at home.
Of course, not every DirecWay customer agrees, including Gary of Lincoln, Missouri. "Service is very crappy. Slow, sometimes as bad as dialup if not worse. I buy and sell on ebay so if the internet doesn't work I lose big," Gary said.
Gary's complaint is similar to those often leveled at DSL and cable providers as well. In many of these cases, the fault lies elsewhere -- slow servers, bogged-down DNS and, not infrequently, balkiness in the user's PC. Inadequate memory, spyware, viruses, file fragmentation, all can slow the display of Web pages.
It's a little puzzling why broadband Internet via electrical lines hasn't taken off. The copper wires that deliver electricity to homes and offices are capable of moving a lot of data at very low cost but the technology just hasn't gotten the attention it would seem to deserve.
That may be changing, though. A Maryland company that provides high-speed Internet access over electrical power lines last week received a major investment from Google Inc., the Hearst Corp. and Goldman Sachs. Current Communications Group declined to disclose financial terms of the investment though the Wall Street Journal reported that it approached $100 million.
If the FCC stays out of the picture, maybe this will go somewhere.
There's no question: dial-up just doesn't get it anymore. Even if you never download audio or video files, most Web sites now have such fat pages that it's a very frustrating proposition to be stuck on a dial-up connection. The experience just isn't the same.
That being said, we would have to admit we sometimes get more done on the rare occasions when we must rely on dial-up connections. We find ourselves spending more time writing and editing, even thinking, less time reading the latest inflammatory e-mails.
Then there's the matter of cost: dial-up is cheap, assuming you don't fall for the high-priced brands like AOL, MSN and Earthlink. We seldom issue outright recommendations but here are two dial-up ISP providers we have used with great success when stuck in nowheresville: localnet.com and highstream.net. Both have plans under $10 per month that will provide dial-up access from most parts of the country. As always, you must be sure to select a dial-up number that is within your local calling area.
So, what to do if you're living in an area without cable or DSL broadband? We'd say satellite is the best option, at least for now. For road warriors and those on temporary assignments, we don't have a good answer, other than an inexpensive dial-up plan, a list of hotel chains that offer free high-speed access and a willingness to hang around Internet cafes. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. At least for now.
Up the Broadband Creek Without a Signal...