The Worst Broadband in America

I recently read an article by Clare Malone from fivethirtyeight titled, “The Worst Internet in America.” The article discussed Saguache County, Colorado, which was identified by researchers at the University of Iowa and Arizona State University as having the lowest broadband penetration in the US. Only 5.6% of households there have broadband that meets the FCC definition of 25 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up. It’s an article worth reading and highlights the problems caused by lack of broadband.

As you might imagine it’s a rural farming community. Slow broadband has historically been offered by CenturyLink and Fairpoint, the two incumbent telcos serving the county. Like much of rural America the county now has a WISP offering fixed-wireless broadband. Ralph Abrams, the former mayor of Crestone, CO founded the WISP in 2011 as a reaction to the poor DSL service in the county.

My main takeaway from the article is that this same article could be written about almost any pocket of rural customers in the country. We are a nation of broadband haves and have-nots. In most of rural America there is a clear line that defines who has broadband. If a county is lucky enough to have a cable TV company in some of its towns there is always a place at the edge of the town where the coaxial cables stops. The dividing line with DSL is always a little fuzzier, but there is always some distance from town where the DSL is too slow to be of any use – and that’s not generally more than a mile or two from a town.

People that live outside the broadband boundary have three options – satellite broadband, cellular broadband or no broadband. I have never met anybody that was satisfied with satellite broadband. Some of the services today deliver speeds as fast as 17 Mbps. But the satellite plans are expensive and have two major drawbacks. First are small monthly data caps that average in the range of 10 gigabytes of downloaded data. Unlike cellphone plans where you pay more for extra data, most satellite plans kick you off for the rest of the month when you hit your cap. And satellites have dreadful latency that is as much as twenty times higher than on fiber. Latency is a measure of the time delay for a data packet to reach a customer. High latency means that real-time applications don’t work. With a high-latency connection you can’t make a phone call over the Internet. You can’t watch live-streaming video. You can’t connect to services that require real-time connections like online classes. You can’t hold a connection to a corporate server to work at home.

And cellular data is no better. Rural customers use their cellphones as hot spots. Since cellular data speeds decrease with distance from a cell tower, rural customers are likely to get poor speeds with their cellphones if they can find any broadband connection at all. And unlike satellite broadband the cellular companies will let you buy unlimited extra gigabytes of data – at a high price. I think US cellular data is probably the most expensive data in the developed world priced at $8 – $10 per gigabyte. I have talked to numerous rural households that pay $500 or more a month for cellphone data in order for their kids to do homework.

Rural customers are all highly aware of the hot spots in their region and it’s not unusual to see cars gathered around a library, restaurant or other place that offers public WiFi. Folks drive school kids into town regularly to sit in the car and do homework. People trying to work at home must drive to a hotspot to send or retrieve big data files.

The article asks the same question that I asked a few months ago – is broadband an American right? People have very strong opinions about this idea because of all the political overtones. But one has to only look back to our past to see other times when the US government thought that providing utilities in rural America was good for the country as a whole. There were major government programs to help push electricity into rural America, including cheap long-term loans for places that created local cooperatives to get this done. The same thing happened with rural telephone service and most of rural America got connected to the voice network.

And I ask myself why this is any different. We found ways to string poles and wires to farms for both electricity and telephone service. When you look at the cost of that effort adjusted for inflation it’s hard to think that it was any cheaper to do this back then than it is today to string fiber. As a country we found a way to get electricity and telephone everywhere for the simple reason that we knew it made the whole country better when we didn’t leave parts of the economy behind. I have no idea if there was debate a century ago asking if electricity to farms was a right. But it seems like it was obvious to the country that it was a necessity.