This is part of CNET's "Crossing the Broadband Divide" series exploring the challenges of getting internet access to everyone.
A year ago, Cathy Hansen got the kind of breakup letter everyone dreads. Her internet provider was shutting down service in her area in the next couple of months.
"We do apologize for the inconvenience this interruption of service may cause and wish you the best in finding a new internet service provider," the Cumberland Telephone Company said as it suggested satellite and cellular companies as possible alternatives.
This may not be a big deal for many Americans who have multiple, affordable options when it comes to broadband, but Hansen didn't have that luxury. Alternatives like satellite-based HughesNet have problems with lag time and are notoriously finicky in bad weather, while a cellular hotspot from a carrier like Verizon offers too small a data cap. None of the smaller telephone companies near her home in Iowa wanted to invest the millions needed to wire the area with fiber.
"We literally searched and searched for an internet provider," says Hansen, a retired teacher who lives on the outskirts of Atlantic, a southwest Iowa town with a population of about 7,000. "It was horrible."
Hansen, whose husband relies on an Internet-based phone for work, and her neighbors were stuck -- while people in nearby areas, including other Cumberland customers, had zippy fiber connections.
This corner of Iowa, where I grew up, isn't alone. While US carriers are busy promising super-speedy 5G wireless service, pockets of the country still have slow or even no internet. In many rural areas, there are only one or two providers, and the service available is pricey and spotty. Hospitals, schools and other critical groups don't have fast-enough internet to function. Federal and state governments have provided billions of dollars to companies to build out speedy fiber networks, but outdated and undetailed maps make it tough to identify areas in need.
For many people in the rural US -- from stretches of Kansas to vast swaths of Alaska -- it's like living in an undeveloped nation when it comes to internet connectivity.
"It doesn't matter if you have access to the greatest content in the world if you can't get to it," says Tom Ferree, the head of Connected Nation, a nonprofit focused on expanding high-speed internet availability in the US. "Make no mistake, a divide still exists."
Perhaps nowhere is this divide more evident than in Iowa.
Over the past decade, tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have built massive new data centers in Iowa. They rely on those facilities to store information about their services and customers and relay the data at lightning-fast speeds. In February, US News & World Report ranked Iowa as the best state in the country, partly because of its infrastructure and broadband access.
But not everyone has access. Take my birthplace of Cass County, located in the southwest part of Iowa, about halfway between Des Moines and Omaha, Nebraska. It's a large farming area, and some of the towns have as few as 100 people.
Population density matters because it determines whether an internet company will invest in building out its network or if it will stick to its traditional borders. With a density of about 24.7 people per square mile, Cass County isn't attracting many broadband suitors. By comparison, New York County's population density is nearly 69,500 people per square mile.
The airport in Atlantic -- the biggest town in the county, as well as where I graduated from high school and where Hansen lives -- just got broadband speeds this year. Before that, its download speeds consistently waned below 1 Mbps, which is way too slow for the pilots and visitors trying to watch movies or update their GPS maps.
"If you've never experienced that, you don't understand it," says Lori Reid, who, with her husband, runs the Atlantic Municipal Airport. "It was embarrassing. ... You don't want [people to think] that we're a bunch of country hicks."
The problem runs deeper than the willingness of ISPs to move into new areas. When the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 changed the definition of broadband to 25 megabits per second for download speeds, up from 4 Mbps, it found that 55 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, lacked access to advanced services. The following year, the FCC concluded that percentage of underserved Americans had dropped to 10 percent.
5G, meanwhile, promises speeds exceeding 1 Gbps. Yes, gigs.
In its most recent report, from February, the FCC said that as of the end of 2016, 24 million Americans, or 7.7 percent of the overall population, still lacked broadband internet speeds. That's about equal to the populations of the country's eight biggest cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Diego -- combined.
The reality is that 80 percent of the 24 million people still without broadband are located in rural parts of the US. And experts say today's figures are almost certainly inaccurate because of faulty maps.
"The current [broadband coverage] map is a nightmare," says Christopher Ali, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Media Studies and a former FCC employee who's writing a book about rural broadband policy.
Blame the agency's mapping policies for muddying things. Internet service providers twice a year have to give the FCC what's called Form 477 data that details coverage areas and speeds. But the FCC doesn't check the data; it just relies on the ISP to report accurate information. And the speeds ISPs have to list are what their advertised maximum speeds are, not necessarily the everyday reality. Pricing data is kept confidential, which means broadband speeds may be available but at very high rates.
An even bigger issue: If even one home in a census block -- the smallest geographic area used by the US Census Bureau -- can get broadband service, the entire area is considered served. In rural areas, that home may be the only place with internet service for miles around.
"Form 447 doesn't help us at all," Ali says. "It just creates this wildly distorted image of a competitive broadband ecosystem that doesn't exist."
To fiber or not to fiber
It's in that environment that Wendy Hansen (no relation to Cathy) found out that Cumberland had stopped offering her internet service.
Because Wendy Hansen, her husband and brother-in-law run their 3H Customs business -- which sells fertilizer to farmers -- from home, she had to find a solution, and fast.
Wendy Hansen ended up buying a 4G LTE hub from Verizon Wireless, but blew through her cap in the first week. Hansen returned the hub and then relied on her phone's hotspot, along with its 15GB of data allowance, even less than what she had with the hub. Her two children had to use their own hotspots when doing homework, and she'd also tap into the data from the three cellular iPads owned by the family.
"It's difficult because you know you have to get work done, but you've only got this much data to use," she says. "I found myself going into businesses in town when I had to download something and connecting to the free internet they had to download things."
Her situation underscores how ill-suited cellular service is as an alternative to fixed-line broadband. Coverage can be spotty, and even if it's available, data caps mean you won't be binging shows online anytime soon. The FCC in its broadband deployment report in February said it still doesn't consider mobile to be a full substitute for fixed broadband services.
The best option is a fiber-optic line straight into the home, but it isn't cheap. Building fiber to the home costs about $3,000 to $10,000 per customer -- or even higher in some cases, estimates Dave Duncan, CEO of the Iowa Communications Alliance, a group that represents more than 130 local telecom providers and pushes for access to "affordable and robust" broadband for all Iowans.
"If you're laying fiber and going from one town to the next, down a gravel road, it can be $10,000 a mile to lay the fiber," he says. The price of fiber cable itself has dropped, but labor costs remain high. While fiber may be the most expensive technology up front, it's still the most reliable, "best and cheapest long-term solution" for broadband, Duncan says.
Other cheaper options include running fiber to a nearby tower that then beams the signal to homes (something called fixed wireless) or using co-ax or other cables to link homes to a nearby fiber-connected box called a node. The latter is favored by companies like Mediacom, one of the biggest cable and internet service providers in Iowa. It's one of the two major ISPs in Atlantic.
Mediacom has 600,000 miles of fiber and 50,000 miles of co-ax spread across the US. Eventually, it may build fiber to every customer's home, but it doesn't think that will happen for at least five to 10 years, says J.R. Walden, Mediacom's chief technology officer.
"Every year we stretch fiber ever closer to the customers," Walden says. But "I don't think … fiber to the home is going to be necessary for the vast majority of Americans within the next five years."
As for customers like Cathy and Wendy Hansen who live a short distance outside of Mediacom's coverage area, they're out of luck. It's just too expensive for Mediacom to extend its network.
"We look at homes right on the other side" of our coverage area, Walden says. "But if our capital investment has a 40-year [return on investment] … it's hard to explain from a business standpoint."
In 2015, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad rolled out the "Connect Every Acre" initiative. For the first three years, the program mainly gave property tax breaks to ISPs going into areas lacking broadband service.
In the first year, tax exemptions supported $16 million in projects, says Robert von Wolffradt, chief information officer for the state. By last year, the projects totaled $114 million. In those three years, they've covered 21,000 homes, 41 schools and 4,600 businesses with over 3,000 miles of fiber, he says.
Starting early next year, Iowa also hopes to start awarding $1.3 million in grants. The proposal first has to pass the state legislature.
The federal government also has made rural broadband a priority, with loans and grants distributed by the FCC and the US Department of Agriculture. Earlier this year, Congress allocated $600 million to the USDA for a new broadband pilot program, though the USDA hasn't yet decided the parameters for distributing the money. The FCC, meanwhile, will distribute up to $1.98 billion over 10 years as part of its Connect America Fund Phase II.
"It's remarkable how much we've gotten done over the last 20 months to be able to solve this problem," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in an interview with CNET. "But there are many hard-to-serve parts of the country, and we want to make sure we are working as actively as we can to connect every single one of them."
A big problem in Iowa, as in much of the US, is that not even the state government knows how much broadband coverage it truly has.
Von Wolffradt in 2015 said that up to 60 percent of Iowa had high-speed internet and broadband connections, though coverage could be "spotty" in some areas. Today, it's unclear how much that level has changed.
"If anybody tells you exactly what the percentage is, we'd love to talk to them," von Wolffradt says. "I need to know exactly what it is we have and where we have it." He plans to talk to the state legislature this year about updating 2015's maps.
"We would like to get to the point where every house, address, business, whatever it is, that part of the assessor listing would show what broadband access that property has," he says. "If we know that up front, we can incentivize those specific [underserved] areas and prioritize them above anything else the state is doing."
Groups like Connected Nation have been pushing the FCC to collect better data from service providers, down to the street address, and analyze that to create footprints of service availability. It wants the data validated by third parties to figure out areas that need further investigation, and for in-field validation to take place before the maps are finally updated.
"That data steers literally billions of dollars annually in subsidies," Connected Nation's Ferree says. "But we have to be smarter on how we spend the money. ... It comes down to data. Better maps will inform better investments and make it go where it needs to go."
Taking a wrong turn
Nearly a decade ago, the Cumberland Telephone Company knew it had to do something about its internet service. The copper lines running to the homes of its landline customers around the town of Cumberland, Iowa, were deteriorating, and it had to find a way to keep their internet running.
Cumberland started looking at fiber in 2010 but then shifted its focus to a more economical fixed wireless service in 2012. For a $100,000 investment, the company could cover 100 homes, says Devan Amdor, the telephone company's plant manager. And it could extend far beyond its traditional landline borders, giving it new customers as far away as Winterset, a 70-mile drive from the town of Cumberland.
It would cost $15,000 per mile, by contrast, to dig in the ground to install fiber. And Cumberland had 104 miles and 365 homes and businesses it had to cover in its traditional network.
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Wrong.
Vicki Adams, the Cumberland Telephone Company's office manager, called the decision to go wireless "a mistake." The company could only provide a maximum of 10 Mbps wireless speeds and that was if there were no hills or other interference. By the time the service got to Winterset, or even Cathy Hansen's home about 11 miles away from Cumberland, it was much slower. And the towers constantly had maintenance problems that were difficult and costly to fix.
A tower in nearby Adair was struck by lightning only three days after being installed. It ended up being struck three times before Cumberland took it down a year later.
"Wireless gets very expensive," Amdor says. "It's cheaper when you [initially] look at it, but it outdates itself in a couple of years."
So the Cumberland Telephone Company turned back to fiber. Waiting for grants to be approved would delay the rollout by about two years, so the company decided to fund the operation on its own through investments it had made over the years. It ended up spending $2.6 million to install fiber in late 2016 and early 2017 to each home and business in its landline network.
The move resembled what other companies considered after Google launched its big push with fiber in 2010. At the time, Google Fiber promised to be more than 100 times faster than what most Americans could access. ISPs in cities Google served lowered their prices and boosted speeds to compete.
But in an illustration of the cost and difficulty of deploying fiber, Google in 2016 "paused" plans to roll out its internet service to new cities to explore other wireless options. Verizon also stopped rolling out its Fios fiber-optic internet service.
Often, it's the smaller company with the narrower focus that's better equipped to handle specific rural areas.
Cumberland's customers, for instance, now can choose among 25 Mbps for $65 a month, 50 Mbps for $85 a month or 100 Mbps for $105 a month. And that fee also includes their landline telephone service.
My sister-in-law, Kim Tibken, runs her own graphic design business from her home outside Cumberland. Before the telephone company upgraded its line, uploading a full-page ad design would take her four hours and her family couldn't use its smart TV to watch videos. Her Amazon Echo's most common response to inquiries was, "Sorry, your internet connection isn't working right now. Please try again later."
Now her internet is almost faster than mine in downtown San Francisco.
"The service has sure changed since getting fiber-optic lines," she says. "It was a long time coming but was worth it in the end."
When Cumberland turned on its fiber, though, it turned off most of its wireless towers, leaving customers like Cathy Hansen without any internet.
When Cathy Hansen was about to lose her Cumberland internet service, she signed a contract with HughesNet. She was hopeful the satellite service would be zippy enough for her husband to place IP calls for work and for her to eventually teach English to children in China. She was wrong.
"I really felt like I stepped back into the 1990s," she says.
HughesNet, for its part, says that while satellite has some latency issues not common with cable or fiber, it typically doesn't impact what people do most often on the internet. "Satellite internet often is the best option for rural communities, which are unserved or underserved by cable or fiber," Peter Gulla, senior vice president of marketing at Hughes, said in a statement.
Still, satellite didn't work for Cathy Hansen's needs. Frustrated, she eventually heard about a local business owner in town who specialized in IT and was starting his own broadband network.
Scott Bennett had set up his IT company, Technically Awesome, after helping modernize the Cass County Memorial Hospital in Atlantic. When he learned about people who couldn't get internet service, he decided to lay his own fiber line and set up a fixed wireless service.
"The objective is to get connectivity to people where it's not getting to currently," Bennett says.
He installed fiber at a farm in Lewis, a town near Atlantic. That signal was then relayed back to Atlantic's water tower and beamed to customers on the edges of town that couldn't pick up other services. Too small and too new to navigate the byzantine federal grant system, Technically Awesome built the network on an initial $30,000 budget -- an amount that has now, less than a year later, about tripled. He funded the project from his life savings and from a loan from a Cass County economic development organization.
"We thought we'd be able to serve a lot more people off the water tower than we've been able to," Bennett says. "We ended up with eight additional towers that really pushed the cost up."
Technically Awesome turned on its network in March. It now covers about 200 square miles with the signals from its nine towers. Both Cathy and Wendy Hansen signed up, as did the Atlantic airport, the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce and about 100 other customers within the first eight months of service. The airport, which was regularly getting less than 1 Mbps speeds, now offers a 100 Mbps connection. By the end of this month, downtown Atlantic will be able to reach 500 Mbps download speeds.
Still, Bennett knows Technically Awesome is likely only a temporary solution for his customers, not a long-term fix. He can't afford to compete with the incumbent providers, so he doesn't. He'll only set up internet service for people who can't get it elsewhere -- or businesses in downtown Atlantic that see expensive prices and slower speeds than they need. He estimates he has a five-year window before Verizon Wireless and other carriers will have fast-enough service to address the underserved Cass County homes. When that time comes, Technically Awesome will be out of the internet game.
As for Cathy Hansen, her internet woes weren't completely over. The hilly landscape between her home and Technically Awesome's wireless tower hindered the internet signal and meant she had trouble streaming video and even loading certain Facebook pages. But then Technically Awesome put up another tower closer to her home, about six miles away, that fixed her problems.
"We love Technically Awesome," Hansen says. "It did take a month or two to work out a few kinks, but it's working great now."
Bennett, meanwhile, has finally connected most customers on his initial waiting list -- but the number of people who want his service continues to grow.
"You can literally stand in one person's yard and get internet but this person over there can't," he says. "It's feast or famine."
CNET's Maggie Reardon contributed to this report.
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