Bringing broadband to the boonies: The odyssey begins

It took years, but Crave writer Eric Mack can finally Skype from his home office in rural New Mexico. In part one of a weeklong series, he leaves city life behind.

The views here don't come with the best data plan. Eric Mack/CNET

Editors' note: This is the first installment in a five-part Crave series detailing writer Eric Mack's long struggle to get a broadband connection in rural New Mexico, where he lives.

PENASCO, N.M -- Although my author bio hints at it, you might not guess that I file CNET stories from the edge of the vast wilderness.

I've lived here five years now, and it's taken me that long to cross the Digital Divide that still exists in this country between those who take decent broadband for granted and those who must constantly say, "Actually, no, I can't Skype."

Today, I finally have a connection at my home office that's on par with average DSL services, but it's not cheap and it hasn't been easy getting it.

Over the course of this and four subsequent posts, I'm going to share the 12-year odyssey that brought me from the San Francisco Bay Area to where I am today -- a guy in an isolated mountain village where many people live without Internet access (or even voice mail, for that matter) who writes about technology -- and my struggles to drag just basic broadband from the digital First World to my more... digitally underdeveloped home.

To understand how I got here, let's briefly revisit the era of the dot-com bubble.

Twelve years ago this month, I got my first big break at South by Southwest. A now long-forgotten Web site I was working on as part of my journalism degree at the University of Missouri won the award for Best Current Events Site that year, besting the likes of "The Daily Show" and others.

Within hours, I was offered a job at a "new-media magazine" -- also now long forgotten -- in San Francisco. I put my education on hold and moved west, arriving just in time for the carnage of the dot-com bubble burst. The digital Shangri-La I envisioned was crumbling, if it ever really existed in the first place.

Within months I was back in Missouri finishing my degree, and after 9/11 I found myself running a public radio station in a remote outpost in Alaska. That's where I discovered that being at an exclusive launch party or a talked-about TED talk is cool, but it's nothing compared with the rush of setting up an ad hoc cell phone network for a fly-in-only village of 700 people just below the Arctic Circle.

After four years in Alaska and some time in Asia, I had little desire to return to the Bay Area, or any other city for that matter. I wanted to continue living in the places where technology was a more highly prized commodity, not just another monthly bill. Besides, as a Colorado native, it's tough to feel at home without being surrounded by soaring peaks. Those desires and life's unending chain of surprises led my family and me to settle here:

I try not to anger the trees, they've got me surrounded. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

The dark green on that satellite image is all national forest. I can hurl a stone over my neighbor's property and land it within the forest boundary. We're 30 miles from the nearest supermarket or stoplight, so as you might guess, my broadband options are not plentiful.

We purchased our house here in 2007 (literally the worst moment in modern history to purchase a home, I reckon) and at that time there was no cell service, no cable, no DSL, no WiMax or other fixed wireless service, no fiber, no Verizon 4G . In fact, all there was -- besides prehistoric dial-up that would only be capable of 28.8Kbps given the quality of our phone lines then -- was plenty of blue sky to aim a satellite dish at.

So in July of that year I began a long, painful relationship with satellite Internet service. You'd think it would be pretty clear who provides this kind of service -- probably the company that owns the bird in orbit, right? But it's more complicated than that.

For years, American politicians have been promising to bridge the Digital Divide and connect even the most rural Americans to broadband Internet access. Satellite Internet is the stopgap measure that's been used to make good on this promise. The federal government has poured grant money into satellite providers, as well as a group called the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative that acts as a middleman between companies like Hughes, WildBlue/ViaSat, and DirecTV and local rural telecom co-ops that actually resell satellite Internet to customers like me.

As a result of all this bureaucracy, there's just one problem with satellite Internet access: It sucks. It really, really sucks.

Let's start with the costs. Generally, satellite Internet is offered in three usage tiers. Different resellers offer slightly different packages, but in my case, the top-tier package from my co-op offers up to 1.5Mbps download speeds, 56Kbps upload speeds (not a typo, it's actually dial-up speed), and a 17GB cap for the last 30 rolling days of use, all for $89.95. That's more than $5 per gigabyte downloaded -- you'll get a much better data deal renting a Blu-ray disc from Redbox.

The dish is still the only option in much of rural America for Internet access. Eric Mack/CNET

Adding insult to financial injury is the dreaded FAP, or Fair Access Policy. All heavy satellite data users fear the FAP. The FAP says that if you exceed your data cap, you will be throttled with a fury. Generally, FAPs say this throttling will continue until your 30-day rolling usage falls back down to about 70 or 80 percent of your cap.

In practice, this means that if you go beyond your cap you can expect to have your Internet access essentially shut off for about 7 to 10 days. If the kids get ahold of your broadband and have a 17GB movie marathon in one day, you could end up waiting a full month to get that access back.

The problem, of course, is that satellites have much more limited capacity than say, a terrestrial fiber-optic network. And because the service is subsidized just to get it to the "affordable" prices currently offered, there's little incentive for providers to invest in it -- my co-op tells me it makes no money off of satellite, offering it only to keep far-flung members and the NRTC, a member organization made up of co-ops, happy.

This lack of investment, coupled with the use of satellite as a default means of bridging the Digital Divide, only degraded the service further over the first few years I was a subscriber. The 1.5Mbps top download speed would often be reduced by 70 percent or more during peak usage hours, frequently making any kind of media streaming impossible. Even text-chatting through Skype became unbearable at times.

I know this may all sound like so much whining from someone who should know better. After all, I chose to live way out in the sticks, right?

That's kind of the point, though. Most people who live in this economically depressed mountain valley don't have near the technological expectations that I do, but maybe they should. How can we expect to usher all of our citizens into their new roles in an information-based economy without giving them affordable access to information? If two guys at a radio station in Alaska can build a cell phone network, there must be a way to do this.

The first time I was FAPped (about a year after moving here) and lost my home office Internet access for almost two weeks, I resolved to find a better way. In the next installment of this series, I'll begin to outline some of the roadblocks I encountered along the way.

Next up: Eric digs into the DSL under his neighborhood and explains why it's almost totally worthless.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
Best iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus cases
Make your own 'Star Wars' snowflakes (pictures)
Bento boxes and gear for hungry geeks (pictures)
The best tech products of 2014
Does this Wi-Fi-enabled doorbell Ring true? (pictures)
Seven tips for securing your Facebook account