Bringing broadband to the boonies, part 3: Fiber's not free

Stimulus dollars are connecting Eric Mack's tiny mountain town to a high-speed fiber network. But without further investment, the new technology could continue to pass him by.

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
4 min read
The broadband options are piling up in this tiny town... if you can access them. Eric Mack/CNET

PENASCO, N.M. -- So far in this five-part series on my five-year attempt to bring decent broadband to my remote mountain home, I've struck out with cable and DSL and struggled with overpriced, under-performing satellite access.

Technology has, of course, advanced in the last half-decade, including here in the tiny Penasco valley, but it seems to keep passing me by. In the last installment, I explained how the DSL access available at my house isn't worth much, thanks to a lack of investment by our regional telecom. About the same time it was making its "upgrades," another broadband technology was making its debut here.

Fixed wireless service went up on Picuris Peak and another nearby rise in the valley, promising to bring speeds "at least five times faster than dial-up." That doesn't exactly qualify as an offer you can't refuse, but the top-tier package does amount to a baby step upward from the brutal satellite Internet setup I described in part 1 of this series.

Currently, the rural co-op offering the service provides speeds up to 3Mbps, but it will cost you $95 a month. That still looks pretty attractive when you're living with a 1.5Mbps connection with a harsh data cap for about the same price.

So I scheduled a site survey. In fact, I scheduled two after the first one didn't go too well without the senior installer on hand. The second one didn't go well either. The line of sight to both nearby fixed wireless towers -- the service requires an unobstructed path between an antenna installed on the roof and a tower as much as 15 miles away -- is blocked from my property.

So fixed wireless also seems to be a dead-end in what's becoming a full-blown cornfield maze of a journey to bring broadband to my boonies. But that could soon change.

When I spoke to Richard Lowenberg, a senior broadband planner who came up with New Mexico's broadband plan under our previous governor, he started quoting names of ambitious broadband projects in the area that I'd never heard of. Most of them have to do with small rural telecom providers getting linked up via a new fiber optic network funded by the 2009 Recovery Act, aka the stimulus package.

One of those projects is a so-called "open fiber" network that will reach the nearest town, a few miles from my home. Open fiber means the network infrastructure isn't limited to a single service provider, as in the case of cable.

In fact, I had heard about my own rural co-op being involved in its own fiber project -- it's planning to have most of the county where I live hooked up to this new fiber network by 2014.

The rough map of where my rural telecom plans provide fiber access includes most of the county, but still leaves some areas out. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

"I think (the rural co-ops undertaking fiber projects) are going to do a good job, but a lot of projects like that will not succeed if not planned out," Lowenberg told me. "Nobody's thinking strategically about leveraging those stimulus funds and projects."

Lowenberg is worried that rural broadband projects are getting close to falling off a cliff. He says the problem has to do with the larger economic situation, and skittish governments and companies that aren't willing to make follow-up investments to get broadband access over the last mile to the doors of far-flung users like me.

"I think we're going to see a real drop-off once stimulus dollars run out," Lowenberg said.

For me to access all that broadband-rich fiber, it has to be tapped with additional infrastructure, and in my case, Lowenberg thinks that's likely to be more fixed wireless stations.

With the high-speed fiber right in the ground nearby, these wireless stations could be much faster and more accessible. Another technology like WiMax might also make sense in a small valley like this.

My co-op says it's working to get me access to its new fiber, but it's been a controversial project and the co-op is strapped for cash, so I fear the possibility of delays to deployment, which is already at least 18 months off. I've also yet to hear of any plans for a local provider looking to tap the new open fiber network.

It looks like new broadband technology could again be passing right through the neighborhood, but continuing to pass me by.

I told Lowenberg about the trials I've been through in my search for decent broadband, and given his knowledge of all these projects and my situation I asked him what he would do if he were me.

"Move," he said. Then he laughed.

Up next: I see what the wireless companies have to offer me in terms of broadband.