The Widening Rural Broadband Gap

FunkstownThe gap between urban and rural broadband is widening quickly these days. Up until the late 1990s access to the Internet was the same for everybody using dial-up. But within a short period of time in the late 90s both DSL and then cable modems hit the market.

I remember back in the early 90s how jealous I was of friends who had Internet access at work using a T1. But then DSL became available and all of a sudden we could all get the equivalent of T1 access at our homes. At the time DSL felt amazingly fast, and it was at 20 – 30 times the speed of dial-up. The big limitation with dial-up was that it took several minutes to see a picture that accompanied a news story and it could take hours to download a software update. But DSL and cable modems fixed those problems and images became much faster and file downloads didn’t take half of the night.

But these new technologies were only available in towns and cities and that was the start of the urban / rural broadband gap. Over the years both technologies got faster. In most big cities it became routine to be able to buy DSL at speeds up to 15 Mbps, a nice improvement over the first generation. But cable modems improved even more and over the last decade became capable of speeds much faster than DSL.

What I found odd was that for the longest time the cable companies didn’t take advantage of their extra capabilities. They offered cable modem speeds that were just slightly faster than DSL. I can remember the CEO of Comcast telling people that they would supply the speed that people ‘needed’. But even at 15 Mbps the speeds were 250 times faster than the dial-up that many people rural people were still stuck with.

But over the last five years the cable companies woke up and started unilaterally raising speeds to be faster than DSL, and in doing so they started capturing the vast majority of the market. It was hard to justify staying on 6 Mbps DSL if you could get a 25 Mbps cable modem for the same price. The cable companies have generally offered speeds over the last five years up to 100 Mbps, although the vast majority of urban customers have opted for something slower. But even 25 Mbps is 450 times faster than dial-up.

Not all rural people have had dial-up as their only option. There have been several satellite companies that offered faster speeds, but the service was really expensive and there was so much latency in the signal that a lot of things other people could do on the Internet are not possible on a satellite connection. So a lot of rural people still use dial-up – or often just go without a connection – because on today’s web, dial-up can do little more than read emails.

In the last year or so the cable companies have really kicked it up a notch and they clearly now are competing with speed – probably as a way to fight off having somebody else build fiber. Late last year Comcast doubled the speed on my home connection from 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps, an eye-opening 1,800 times faster than dial-up.

And the cable companies aren’t finished. They are now talking about upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1 which will enable them to offer speeds up to a gigabit. But that is not the real news concerning the new technology, because Comcast says that they plan to increase speeds across the board again. So my 100 Mbps connection might become 150 Mbps to 200 Mbps. Or 3,500 times the speed of dial-up.

But there are cities that are really lucky and which have widespread gigabit speeds. Google and a few others are using fiber to provide a real competitor to cable modems. And customers on a gigabit are nearly 18,000 times faster than dial-up.

So rural folks with no broadband alternative have seen the people in the towns and cities around them climb over time from 20 times faster up to many thousands of times faster. I really don’t think most urban people understand how colossally terrible it is to be on dial-up. They remember all of the things that they could do on dial-up in the 90s and they don’t stop to think how the whole web has migrated to video. Imagine trying to look at Facebook or Pinterest or any other popular site on dial-up, or even on 1 Mbps rural DSL and you can quickly understand why rural areas are getting desperate and are willing to do almost anything to get faster broadband.

Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils?

FTTH fiber-to-the-home

FTTH fiber-to-the-home (Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom)

Today our guest blogger is Ron Isaacson, a former employee and still a good friend of CCG’s.

A number of years ago, the large ILEC in our area installed fiber optic lines in our neighborhood and soon started offering their FTTH product line in the area. The cable provider had already been in the neighborhood for a while and was already fiercely pushing their bundled service packages. We finally were going to have the competitive market version of a boxing match. SWEET!!

Our family had “Dish” TV service, satellite access that worked most of the time – except when bad weather interrupted the signal. We had dial-up Internet through a local ISP, back when the bandwidth offered on dial-up was still relatively decent, and we had our telephone service through a local CLEC. Being a telecom consultant I liked splitting services between the different vendors because no one monopolist had their claws fully in my back pocket. I might have been paying a little more for this split service, but it made sense to me.

However, the FTTH offerings changed the whole equation. Cable offered a full package too, so we had a choice.

Having had previous horrendous customer service experiences with both the ILEC and the cable company we were at a quandary as to which 21st Century telecom service to commit to, so I decided to take a poll: I asked a bunch of my neighbors which service they subscribed to and why, and how were the services provided?

The results were a classic case of monopolistic bad reputations! Either a family absolutely hated the ILEC and had signed up with cable, or they absolutely hated the cable company and had signed up with the ILEC. Apparently, no one truly loved either telecom provider and they just chose the company that they hated the least. (It’s been a few years, hopefully this has changed!) I couldn’t help but thinking that both companies are as bad as the worst of the stories about the airlines!

We chose the ILEC, but the notorious nature of the story was just getting started. Our telephone number, which we had for over 25 years, was an exchange-level “FX” number, meaning that all of the customers with that exchange were billed as if the service was down-county, closer to the metro-area. The rep advised that this was not a problem, that they could still do the switch.

Once the FTTH was installed, the Internet and TV service worked beautifully, but it took another 35 days for the phone service to be re-connected because, and this is a quote, “The fiber can’t handle the FX line.” At this point I laughed and replied, “I beg to differ. The fiber doesn’t know the difference, and doesn’t care….it is your systems that are messed up!”

After 35 days, they decided to run the telephone service over the old copper pair, and bill it as if it was on the fiber. This actually proved to be a good thing when the electric power went out due to an electric utility that also possessed byzantine customer service skills.

Years later the ILEC came back and reconfigured the FTTH to include the telephone service on the fiber. Incredibly, the telecom service that was the most troublesome for the telephone company to install….who knew?

Years later, this experience still shades my view of the ILEC, the gang that proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can and will shoot themselves in both feet.

Thinking of my installation experience with fiber made me think back to something that had happened to me earlier. Many years ago, in the hay-day of the long distance marketplace during a customer service training seminar, the class discussed the results of a poll showing the reasons that customers cancel their service with carriers. A couple of facts stuck with me: First, 3% of customers die and there’s not much one can do about that. Additionally, about 5 to 10% of customers move, or otherwise change locations. Again, not much (at that time) that could be done about that.

However, over 50% of customers cancel because of rudeness or indifference from customer service personnel in reference to a given incident. There were reasons filling in the rest of the 100%, but those three points stuck out to me – two that you can’t do anything about and one that we definitely can.

The bottom line I took away from that training, and my experience with the telephone company is to be sure that every customer is treated as if their service matters, as if their patronage is appreciated.