At last, broadband in the boonies, but at a price

In the final installment of a weeklong series, Crave writer Eric Mack finally succeeds in bringing broadband Internet access to his isolated mountain home. See how he did it.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects, and CNET's "Living off the Grid" series Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
5 min read

My broadband solution: next-generation satellite Internet that's five times faster -- and 50 percent more expensive. Eric Mack/CNET

PENASCO, N.M. -- After five years of enduring Internet access that provided dial-up speeds for uploading and rarely exceeded 1Mbps down, I now cruise along in my home office on the edge of a wilderness area at 7.5Mbps for downloads. My uploads are 30 times faster at 1.5Mbps.

The path to my recent broadband liberation began on a day last fall when that slow satellite connection went dark for an entire day. A malfunction with the satellite literally caused it to shut down and turn away from the Earth. In the process of reporting the story for CNET, I came across a tangentially related tidbit about the launch of a new satellite, called ViaSat-1, which would soon be in orbit and providing new speed and capacity for my satellite Internet provider (WildBlue, which is a subsidiary of ViaSat).

I shared the good news with my family, but didn't plan to hold my breath for the upgrade to trickle down anytime soon through the layers of middlemen and resellers standing between that beautiful new bird in orbit and my Wi-Fi router. If you've read the rest of this week-long series or live in the sticks yourself, you know how new and exciting infrastructure can remain out of grasp, even when it's physically so close to home.

But just three months later, while at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, something caught my eye on the grounds just beyond the CNET trailer. ViaSat had a line of new dishes pointed at ViaSat-1, and the resulting connection was impressive, with download speeds as high as 18Mbps, averaging 12Mbps.

By now, many readers will know exactly what I'm talking about. It's a solution to my broadband woes that many of you have already suggested in your comments and e-mails -- WildBlue's Exede service.

I started calling around in February and found one provider in Santa Fe that was offering Exede installation. My local telecom co-op, which I've been buying the slow WildBlue service from for half a decade, wasn't advertising Exede, but I decided to call anyway in hopes of avoiding a self-install or the cost of hiring an installer to travel from more than an hour away.

Mission accomplished... for the most part. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

After a few confused responses, I found someone in the right department who knew what I was talking about. They had the Exede equipment but weren't yet publicizing it. If I was willing to be a guinea pig and spend several hours hanging out while they installed it and figured out how to set it up for the first time, they could come out the following week.

After a half day's worth of trial and error, the two installers finally secured me a link to ViaSat-1 -- all three of us marveled at the results of the speed test. "Wow, never seen WildBlue do anything close to that," one of them said after my connection clocked in at 7.6Mbps.

For now, I'm happy with the drastic improvement in speed, but it's far from the ideal situation. The jump in price is significant. Even being the guinea pig, I couldn't get out of the install fee as I'd been able to in the past with my co-op, and for that top-speed package I'm paying $129.99 a month plus another $9.99 to lease the modem.

But the biggest bummer for me is that there's still the Fair Access Policy to contend with (see the start of this series, where I explain how the FAP allows for drastic throttling of speed whenever my data cap is exceeded) and a 30-day 25GB data cap. That's an improvement from my old 17GB cap, but with more bandwidth, I've found it easy to go through an extra 8GB a month on Skype, Spotify, Google Hangouts, and Hulu.

I'm not complaining about my long-awaited upgrade, but I'm not giving up my quest for the perfect service just yet, either. I signed a two-year service contract with my co-op for Exede. I could go to the trouble of coordinating with some neighbors to set up some long-range routers or put an antenna on a telescoping pole, as readers have suggested, but there's some other hindrances to these approaches I won't bother going into.

My co-op tells me that by the time my Exede contract runs out, it should be finished testing the new fiber-based services in my area. That gives me two years to keep making the calls to make sure it actually happens.

That brings me to one last point about this entire journey. A handful of the responses to my series this week have been of the predictable "why don't you just move?" or "why should I subsidize your broadband?" variety.

I could just move, and we've certainly thought about it, but we've made the choice to stay and try to improve the situation, and will continue to pay the price for living here, both in terms of data caps and monthly rates. But many rural Americans don't have the choices that a white, middle-class, college-educated CNET technology writer from Denver does.

Many of my neighbors have only one thing of any significant value -- the property they inherited here. Being tied emotionally and financially to a place where there is limited economic opportunity like that can lead to a cycle of poverty that creates ghost towns and becomes a drag on our entire system.

The Navajo and other Native American tribes know plenty about this -- that's why they're building out a 3G and 4G network for their reservation, as I mentioned earlier this week. Universal broadband is a cost-effective way to create more opportunities in places where few currently exist.

As for subsidies, it's a black hole of an argument, as most large companies offering services like broadband to the public receive subsidies of one kind or another to serve all kinds of populations -- urban, suburban, and rural. At $140 a month for 25GB, I'm still largely subsidizing my own broadband. It seems to me that we're all subsidized in one way or another, but those of us in the boonies just have to shout a little louder to make sure we're not forgotten when the fruits of those subsidies start to ripen. And that's what I plan to continue doing.

Finally, thanks so much for the flood of comments, ideas, and encouragement this week. Once I catch my breath, I'll post a selection of reader reactions to the series. Maybe one day I'll meet some of you boonies brethren in a Google Hangout somewhere.