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Bringing broadband to the boonies, part 2: DSL's dark side

In most places with stoplights and supermarkets, DSL is viable and affordable. But in the second installment of his hunt for broadband, Crave writer Eric Mack discovers that in rural New Mexico, miles of new lines go unused.

DSL comes right to my house, but it's not much use.
Eric Mack/CNET

PENASCO, N.M -- In the first installment of this series on my attempt to get decent broadband to my very rural location, I mentioned that I live on the edge of a wilderness area in the mountains of northern New Mexico. If I can get affordable and fast access to the Internet, it should be possible almost anywhere. But as I'll explain today, crossing the Digital Divide isn't always such an easy task when you're off the beaten path.

When I lived in major cities like Denver and San Francisco, cable Internet always seemed like the obvious choice -- it was often the fattest fiber optic pipe around and provided cheap, fast, and reliable access. But in rural areas, satellite television services have become so cheap and ubiquitous that there's little incentive for cable companies to invest large sums building out their infrastructure to far-flung places where most potential customers are already locked in to satellite contracts.

So cable's not an option out here. While satellite TV is cheap and plentiful, satellite Internet is a very different animal, and as I explain in part 1 of this series, it's neither fast, friendly, nor frugal.

In most places with stoplights and supermarkets, DSL is a completely viable and affordable broadband option. But DSL has a dark side. Generally, it's operated by the local or regional telecom monopoly, and these huge bureaucracies tend to be tightly regulated by the even larger bureaucracies of federal and state government.

There are pros and cons to this scenario, of course. The economies of scale involved often help make DSL more affordable (the same can be said for large cable broadband providers, of course), but that same mammoth scale can also make things move awfully slow.

In my home state of New Mexico, our regional telecom, Qwest (recently acquired and transformed into CenturyLink) has been... how to put this delicately? Qwest was a... troubled company. Feel free to Google its various travails. The one that concerns my story deals with allegations that the company was taking the surcharges the state allows it to tack on to users' monthly bills and shoveling them into the pockets of shareholders rather than using that cash to pay for shovels in the ground to build out better network infrastructure as the company had originally agreed to do.

I spoke to Richard Lowenberg, a senior broadband planner and the guy who developed New Mexico's statewide broadband plan in the previous decade. He says that audits revealed that $875 million dollars of surcharges meant to improve service for rural customers and others were diverted by Qwest. In the end, the state settled with the company for less than half that amount in upgrades statewide. Fast-forward about five years to the present, and those upgrades have been completed -- $385 million worth, to be exact.

Century Link is quick to point out that it's actually gone above and beyond the infrastructure Qwest was required to upgrade, and indeed it's invested millions "extra" in recent months, but Lowenberg says all the upgrades still are "not quite enough."

When he says "not quite enough," he's talking about customers like me who got short shrift on the upgrades. I remember when they happened on my road a few years ago. New line was put in the ground to support DSL, but without additional upgrades to the nearest central office and other network infrastructure, it's not much good at my location. In this video, you can see exactly why:

I even spent time (and many cups of coffee) scheming with Qwest's local technician over all the possible "creative engineering" solutions that might be able to boost DSL speeds to my home above the 256Kbps download streams the tech said he "might" be able to promise. I'm still not sure I understand those conversations completely, but the bottom line soon became clear: satellite Internetwas still my best option, even with that shiny new wire in the ground.

There's no real way to tell if that would be different had Qwest spent all $875 million of the surcharges it collected on building out a better network, but it's clear that the "budget package" of $400 million-plus that Qwest customers got instead was, for many of us, money wasted.

Like I stressed in part 1, I actively chose to live where I live and I've written off that lackluster and overpriced satellite Internet as a work expense for years now. Call me a whiner if you want; I often am. But many of my neighbors who can't afford to live elsewhere didn't make the same choice. It's a story you're familiar with, or you've at least seen evidence of if you've taken a road trip in the last 25 years -- rural economies decimated by (pick one) big-box stores, globalization, the death of the family farm, being passed up by the new highway, or whatever it is.

Getting rural areas like mine wired up to broadband is touted over and over again as the way to save them -- it's the only good idea most politicians have for helping rural economies. "Think of rural America!" is second only to "Think of the children!" when it comes to guaranteed applause lines during campaign season. It makes for a good speech, but the follow-through is lacking.

American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop put together a national broadband adoption map using Census and FCC data. Like many rural areas, mine is in the 20 to 40 percent adoption bracket. (Click for the nationwide map) Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

"Very few people understand how to think about this," Lowenberg told me. "Too many public and private leaders don't understand the paybacks (that come from building out broadband infrastructure.)"

He explains that while broadband projects can be easy to throw money at -- as the federal government did in the 2009 stimulus bill to the tune of more than $2 billion dollars -- it's just as easy to pull that investment back when times gets tough. And it turns out that my tiny little mountain town is another case in point.

Not only are there miles of new DSL line in my area that may never be utilized, there are even more miles of high-speed fiber going into the ground right now thanks to stimulus money. But Lowenberg's not sure what will happen to all that new infrastructure once the flow of federal Recovery Act dollars dries up soon.

More on that in a later installment in this series. Up next in part 3, I consider another broadband option, but can't quite get it in my sights.