In rural New Mexico, no 3G for me

Crave writer Eric Mack tries getting broadband to his home via wireless providers in part 4 of his weeklong series "Bringing broadband to the boonies" -- and strikes out.

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
My neighbor took this remarkable photo and spent a few minutes uploading it. Then I took a few minutes to download it...next door. John Denne

PENASCO, N.M. -- Since I first moved to this mountain valley in 2007, there's been a veritable explosion of telecommunications technology here. Back then, there was no DSL, no fixed wireless access points, and, most notably, no cell phone service in the area.

Penasco is situated along a route called the "High Road to Taos" -- more than 60 miles of scenic, high-altitude back roads that connect Taos and Santa Fe. Despite the higher elevation, there were few spots along the entire route where you could place a call before 2009.

That's when, after a decade of trying, the people of Picuris Pueblo managed to partner with Commnet Wireless, a cellular wholesale provider, to install cell infrastructure on an existing TV translator tower -- no small task for one of the smallest Indian reservations in the region, and one with few resources. Drive away from Penasco in any direction, and you'll find yourself traveling over one of four mountain passes to the next major town, so as you can imagine, even basic cell service here was a small revolution.

But it still hasn't helped me to realize my dream of true broadband Internet access at my home.

I used to be able to laugh heartily when a customer service rep sitting in my regional telecom's home office in Denver would suggest that I try the company's new wireless USB card to get broadband access in my home via their partner cell network.

Now I have to explain that the lone cell tower in these mountains comes from a wholesale provider that only offers CDMA 1x/EV-DO Rev.A and GSM GPRS/EDGE data connectivity. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the dreaded experience of trying to surf on the road when that little 1X or "E" icon pops up on your phone's status bar -- not exactly the 21st century Internet we're all used to.

As with each stop along this half-decade journey, there's hope for the future of wireless technology to help me Skype from home...I just might not want to hold my breath.

Commnet Wireless says its mission is to "offer highly reliable, feature-rich coverage to underserved markets," and lately, it's been delivering on that promise nearby. Using a stimulus grant, Commnet is building out a 3G and 4G network on the Navajo Nation (PDF) -- the country's largest Indian reservation. (It measures the size of Connecticut and spans a large chunk of Arizona and northwest New Mexico.)

Commnet's coverage area includes the valley where I live, and lots of other spots forgotten by major networks. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

While encouraging, I've heard nothing of plans to upgrade our local tower to 3G speeds, and even if it were on the horizon there's always the looming specter of data caps from the wireless providers that are exponentially more harsh than what I'm already contending with on my satellite connection.

By now you may have noticed a reoccurring theme in this series: a lack of initial and follow-on investment in rural telecommunications infrastructure. It's neither a surprise nor anything new -- in the past it's taken acts of Congress and scads of funding to first electrify and then connect (almost) all of rural America by a simple copper telephone line.

What's sad is that upgrading the boonies to 21st century infrastructure is a far easier task to pull off than those previous efforts. One piece of hardware on an already existing tower in my valley brought a few thousand people into the wireless world, whereas the last such upgrade required physically running wire to each of those homes.

Between the infrastructure-upgrading booms we were supposed to see from Homeland Security and Recovery Act funds, it's remarkable that I'm writing this series in the year 2012 and I'm unable to sound a more optimistic tone.

I don't have a simple answer, just a metaphor. North Americans are running in a relay race right now against the rest of the world in an information-based economy and society, but we've yet to pass the baton of information access to our rural anchor leg, and I promise you that dude (or woman) running the anchor desperately wants to grab that baton and sprint. That much is apparent from the flood of e-mails, comments, and messages I've received this week from readers in similar situations from the far northern reaches of Ontario to just outside Sacramento, Calif.

I did finally find an imperfect solution to my bandwidth problem that I'll let you in on in the final installment of this series (many of you have already guessed what it is), but it doesn't come cheap, and it's far from a solution to the broader problem of being competitive in that never-ending relay race.

Next up: Meet my new 7.5Mbps at-home connection.