Living with Slow Internet in a Broadband World

Ashley Fisher (left) and Vickie Barker run an independent insurance company in Halifax County. Their slow Internet connection, which frequently goes out, hampers customer service. (Photo credit: Roanoke Times)

If you don’t live in a small town or rural community, you probably don’t have a clue how difficult it is to participate in the 21st-century economy. But a Roanoke Times article paints a vivid picture of life in South Boston and Halifax County in Virginia’s Southside region.

Television producer Kevin Peade started his business when everything was on film and a remote location was not a handicap. But the rest of the world has moved to digital, and local broadband connections are so slow during the day, when others are online, that he literally works at night.

Brenda Short got rid of her computer years ago because there wasn’t any point in keeping it around anymore. If she absolutely, positively needs to access the Internet, she drives six miles to her office to get a connection.

A local church canceled its internet service when a pastor left, only to find out it couldn’t get back online later because the network was so overloaded that it wasn’t taking new customers.

Roanoke Times reporter Jacob Demmit compiles other examples of how a small town struggles when the rest of the world does business with a faster, high-broadband metabolism.

There’s a local DMV Select office that struggles with a connection so slow that it often can’t process credit cards. A farmer said he tried satellite internet for a while but ultimately decided he was paying too much for a connection that was hardly usable. One Halifax County resident runs an entire lumber business, including billing for international orders, from his cellphone.

Nationally, only four percent of urban dwellers lack access to a 25 Mbps connection, according to 2016 data from the FCC, the Roanoke Times says. In rural America, the number is 20 percent. But in the Halifax County community of Nathalie (population 183) it’s closer to half. Laying fiber optic cable doesn’t make economic sense in sparsely populated areas. But the improving economics of wireless provides reason for hope.

The county has engaged SCS Technologies, a local Internet Service Provider, to cobble together a network using the small amount of fiber in the ground with a series of antennas mounted on cell towers, water towers, church steeples and anything else tall enough to see above the trees. SCS plans to offer 10 MBS (megabytes per second) service – about five times the speed most people are getting — for $35 a month. Halifax County is contributing $103,000 for phase one of the project.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has selected Halifax County as the proving ground for a service built upon the unused frequencies between television channels known as TV white spaces. One white-spaces tower could in theory cover a 10-mile radius with up to 400 MPS connections. The technology giant, which is partnering with Salem-based B2X Online to provide the local service, hopes to connect 1,000 homes in Halifax and neighboring Charlotte counties by early next year. Microsoft’s goal is to reach 2 million people across the country by 2022, beginning with 12 test sites like Halifax.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s hard to imagine rural communities pulling themselves out of their economic doldrums if they lack the high-speed broadband connections to communicate with the rest of the business world. It is tempting for local boards of supervisors to consider subsidizing broadband service under the theory that, like electricity, telephone, water and sewer, broadband is indispensable for modern life. On the other hand, new technologies and business models are emerging that could render any existing rural-broadband solution obsolete.

Should the  Halifax Board spend thousands of dollar subsidizing a broadband service that is marginally superior to copper-line connections when Microsoft might introduce a vastly superior service that could roll out county-wide within a couple of years? Tough question.

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7 responses to “Living with Slow Internet in a Broadband World

  1. Of course if internet is a business need then it’s a matter of ROI.

    and…………….. is it a “subsidy” or “economic development” ?

    We just spent a couple of days in Urbanna at their Oyster Festival and while Urbanna DOES have internet – the vendors were on their own – with cellphones and “Square” and despite thousands of people attending , most of whom who had cells phones pinging off the towers – the street vendors could process transactions via cellphone.

    I’m not sure how much of a problem it is any more if there are nearby cell towers – for many businesses who are not really moving large slugs of data – but rather transactions.

    We have repair and maintenance people arriving at our place – on an almost monthly basis – and they often carry tablets that are connecting to the cell phone antenna in their vehicles and the nearest tower is a couple miles away through the trees!

    I actually think the cell tower network is actively undermining the economics of cable in the rural areas because most folks don’t require “broadband” to start with… they do a little browsing.. a little email and some facebook.. and many of them no longer do it on a computer but their cellphone.

    If you’re in the rural area and you actually do need broadband.. you need to make a choice.

    Some counties like ours are not subsidizing broadband because what that really boils down to is all taxpayers paying for internet for some … and that’s just a no go.

    What we are doing instead is doing broadband at the schools , fire houses and community centers.. and people can travel there to do more than they ca do on a cell phone…

    With the advent of 4G.. I think cable into rural areas is actually less likely now. Even in places like Africa – it’s the cell phone that is the internet connection.

  2. Classic case of opportunity cost. It’s true, Halifax could “wait and see” what the market produces. But how long? 1 year? 2 years? 3 years? 6 months? I guess that’s the problem a rural county would have. Sure, you can feel “dumb” if you appropriate money now and one year later the tech you invested in is obsolete. But…what if the new tech doesn’t come along for 3 years? What have you lost in that time period? As you write, it’s a very tough question.

  3. When the only way to provide an essential public good, like good roads, or electricity, or sewer and trash removal, or internet access, is through government interference in the marketplace, then that’s what must be done. Antitrust regulation and public education and public health are other examples of things even hard-core libertarians should want to see the government provide at some minimum level. We should be championing the spread of broadband access at taxpayer expense if necessary, not waiting for market solutions. Let’s not kid ourselves, internet access is an essential service today.

  4. Fauquier County is working with a company called Aer Wireless to bring broadband using Wi-Mesh technology throughout the County and not just around Warrenton. The technology does not use expensive and big towers, but rather relatively cheap antennae that transmit and receive in the 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands. The devices must have line-of-sight connections, so they go up hills and down dips. They can be powered by a homeowner or business or by solar. A network can be set up fast and reconfigured quickly. The mesh nature helps avoid single points of failure.

    I went to Warrenton in October. The devices “saw” each other and were able to communicate.

    I understand the Company is talking to a number other rural communities, as well as some nations in the Caribbean, including Dominica and Barbados.

    • They are needed here in Mathews County. The latest of four (?) cable franchise holders here has done better than others but there’s still no viable cable option in most of the County besides satellite.

      I will miss one aspect of this deprivation, however. The local weekly newspaper still thrives here, has plenty of local advertising and classifieds, lots of letters and community news, and a line at the stores on Wednesday to buy the latest edition. Is this because of the nature of rural community life generally, or the absence of Craigslist and Facebook? I don’t know for sure, but hope we don’t lose it.

      • The CEO is Keith Walker, former member of the 82nd Airborne and telco executive. Thinks outside the box and has a big, bold personality and a can-do attitude.

  5. the problem with towers is that they cannot be just “broadcast”… it has to be two-way… whatever they are sending a signal to – the receiving location needs to transmit back.. works this way… when you “key” something in – that has to go back to the tower in order for you to then receive whatever you had “googled”

    that’s the big bugaboo with tower-antenna-sat dish-based internet.

    your keystrokes have to go back and that’s the issue unless those keystrokes are going back on a landline – which then has other problems called “latency”.

    the only tower/antenna to house that works AND can SCALE up are those that have big enough receptor dishes or apparatus to be able to handle all the folks that they are serving…

    This is why when you look at a cell tower that serves a lot of folks – it’s BIG with a BIG array on it:

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