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Commentary Internet

Life in the slow lane: Welcome to the internet in rural America

Commentary: When you're choking on near dial-up internet speeds, you start to dream about the kind of access many people take for granted.

Shara Tibken/CNET

This is part of CNET's "Crossing the Broadband Divide" series exploring the challenges of getting internet access to everyone.

I stare at my computer screen, waiting for my email to load. And I wait. And wait. Whipping out my phone, I try to run a speed test. But the internet's too slow for even that to load.

I'm working from my parents' home in rural Iowa. Or trying to, anyway. But it's nearly lunchtime, and too many people are in their nearby houses, browsing the internet. I unplug my mom's wireless printer, turn off Wi-Fi on my smartphone and make sure the living room Roku TV box -- a well-intentioned but little-used Christmas gift from me -- is disconnected.

broadband-divide-1
Photo by Shara Tibken/CNET

When I finally get the Ookla speed test to work, it tells me my download speed is crawling along at 0.61 Mbps. Five hours later, at 4:21 p.m., it's only 2.12 Mbps. That's barely fast enough for me to access Twitter, let alone stream any videos on YouTube. Soon, I give up on work for the day. I'll try again at 2 a.m. when everyone nearby is asleep. 

Welcome to life as an internet user in rural America. 

Federal and state officials have made nationwide broadband access a priority, offering grants and other incentives to big internet service providers and small-town telephone companies to upgrade their networks. But in other areas, a lack of funds, or lack of vision, derails those plans. Outdated and undetailed maps make it tough to determine where the true need really is, and millions of Americans are without broadband internet. By the Federal Communications Commission's latest estimate, which uses figures from 2016, 24 million Americans, or 7.7 percent of the population, are going without.

In rural areas it's far worse. Roughly 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4 percent of urban Americans, the FCC said.

I left the Midwest 11 years ago, but to me it's still home. I return as often as I can, and that means I frequently work from my parents' home in rural Iowa. Their internet connection is so weak, it's often a struggle to load any web pages, including CNET. Living in Silicon Valley today, I constantly hear about how technology is changing the world and how everyone needs to learn how to code. But how can people become coders if they can't even access the internet?

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Iowa isn't the only place with a problem. Wide swaths of the Midwest, South and even areas outside big cities like San Francisco have gaps in broadband coverage with little to no internet access. The slow, unreliable speeds are something I deal with maybe a few weeks a year. My parents and millions of other Americans deal with this every single day.

That's especially true where I grew up: Cass County, Iowa. The area is located in the southwest part of the state, about halfway between Des Moines and Omaha, Nebraska. It's a large farming area, and some of the towns in the county have as few as 100 people. The biggest -- Atlantic, where I graduated from high school -- has about 7,000 residents.

There are some areas where getting 3 Mbps -- well below the recommended 5 Mbps speed needed for streaming high-definition Netflix content -- is only a pipe dream. Forget about anything close to the FCC's definition of true broadband, or at least 25 Mbps. In Iowa, it literally comes down to what side of the road you live on. One home may have a fiber connection while the neighbors across the street have little to no internet access at all.

As luck would have it, my parents live on the wrong side of the street.

Going way back

To understand what's happening in Iowa requires a bit of a history lesson.

When the first US phone lines were set up, in the late 1800s, the big companies didn't serve some of the less densely populated areas, like much of Iowa outside its cities. Farmers and other community members banded together to form co-ops that would fund their own telephone lines and service.

"There was little development of rural telephone service until the advent of the independent companies," noted a 1942 report called "The Telephone in Iowa." The state was divided among hundreds of independent companies, whose borderlines still exist today.

In recent decades, those telephone companies not only provide landline service, but also internet access.

Iowa is home to about half of all independent phone companies in the nation. In Cass County, these independent businesses include Cumberland, Griswold, Marne Elk Horn, and Massena.

iowa-countryside-broadband

Iowa has about half of all the small, independent telephone companies in the US. That stems from the early days of the telephone industry. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

That gives Iowa the highest number of providers per capita of any state in the country, says Tom Ferree, the head of Connected Nation, a nonprofit focused on expanding high-speed internet availability in the US. The organization's tally from 2015, the year it conducted a big mapping project of the state, put the number of internet providers in Iowa at 201.

But that doesn't mean there's a ton of choice.

"When we came into Iowa, what we saw was, you've got this plethora of providers, but there's a huge need for them to get into rural areas with broadband," Ferree says.

Of the 13,178 people who lived in Cass County as of December 2016, 17 percent didn't have access to fixed 25 Mbps download speeds, according to the FCC's most recent data. In Wiota, where my parents live, the average download speed is 3.04 Mbps, according to BroadbandNow, a website that crunches data and helps consumers find and compare Internet service providers in their area. That's 89 percent slower than the Iowa average.

As someone who's spent plenty of time in New York, San Francisco and Wiota, I can say those discrepancies are noticeable when you're trying to do pretty much anything online.

Fiber galore

My sister-in-law, Kim Tibken, runs her own graphic design business from home, a short drive from where my parents live. But until her local provider, Cumberland, upgraded to a fiber line in 2017, it would take her four hours to upload a full-page ad design. Often she'd simply set a graphic to load before she went to bed and would deal with it the next day, or she'd go to my parents' house to work. Even their sluggish internet was better than her service at home.

Her story underscores the crapshoot nature of internet connectivity in Iowa. Instead of replacing the older copper lines, the Cumberland Telephone Company spent years patching them. When it finally upgraded to fiber in a $2.6 million project that wrapped up in 2017, my brother and sister-in-law felt like they hit the jackpot.

"As a freelance designer, my livelihood depends on the internet," she says. "I used to believe a design job was for those in the city. File sizes were just too large to handle on the internet speeds that were available in our rural area. Not anymore."

Cumberland is also expanding fiber to other nearby areas, such as Bridgewater and Fontanelle.

"You have to get the towns that you can, while you can, because sooner or later everybody's gonna end up with [fiber]," says Devan Amdor, Cumberland Telephone Company's plant manager. "Once a town has fiber, nobody comes in to compete with you."

Cumberland, along with providers Griswold and Marne Elk Horn, have rolled out fiber to their landline customers. But Massena Telephone Company, which serves my parents' home, hasn't. And their house is only four miles from where my brother and sister-in-law live.

A tale of two ISPs

There's a reason my parents are stuck with slow coverage for the foreseeable future.

Though the Cumberland Telephone Company self-funded its fiber installation using money from past investments, the Massena Telephone Company doesn't have that option. Instead, it relies on a combination of savings, existing income and government subsidies to build out its network. That includes funding from the FCC's Alternative Connect America Cost Model program, which is part of its $1.9 billion Connect America fund.

Massena doesn't plan to finish rolling out fiber to all of its customers until about 2026, says Mike Klocke, the company's general manager. It assumes fiber will cost $18,000 to $20,000 a mile to install in the country and $10,000 to $15,000 a block to install in town. Since 2016, it's rolled out about 72 miles of fiber cable to serve 75 homes in the countryside.

"The first thing you look at is, How are we gonna pay for this?" Klocke says. "That determines what you're gonna do and how much."

At the same time, Massena keeps building out its fixed wireless service, putting up a new tower as recently as January. But it's just a temporary fix. "The only reason to do wireless is you can do it cheap," Klocke says.

Others, though, believe fixed wireless is the best way to serve rural areas. It can be deployed at about one-seventh the cost of fiber and one-fifth the cost of cable, says Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. 

"It's a cost-effective, reliable and affordable solution for rural America," he says. "It has tremendous potential to provide rural America with the service that it needs and to do so quickly."

Massena's fastest capable speed today is 25 Mbps in the towns of Massena and Wiota. For that speed, service costs $145 a month. The company's most popular plan, though, is only 5 Mbps, Klocke says. That plan costs about $56 a month, depending on where the customer lives. Its lowest plan is 706 Kbps (yes, that's kilobytes per second) for $29 a month.

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The Massena Telephone Company in Massena, Iowa, offers a top speed of 25 Mbps to customers in town. But its most popular plan overall is 5 Mbps. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

Cumberland's customers, by comparison, 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 landline telephone service.

"Right now we're artificially limiting people's appetite for bandwidth because we cannot provide it to them," Klocke says. "We're working pretty rapidly on fixing that."

My parents -- with their sub-3 Mbps download speeds -- are considered lucky. There are some homes in the Massena Telephone Company's territory that can't get a signal at all. It's those customers, though, who likely will get fiber first.

The homes getting fiber are "customers we're unable to serve right now and also places where our old [copper] cable was deteriorating and was going to be in need of replacement pretty soon," Klocke says.

Massena's troubles illustrate something that's happening across the US. It's just too expensive for some companies to quickly install fiber or upgrade their services to broadband speeds in other ways.

Currently, about a third of US homes have access to fiber connections, 15 years after the first installations, says Michael Render, CEO of RVA, a market research firm specializing in fiber-optic broadband and smart cities. That's up from 27 percent a year ago and 7 percent 10 years ago, according to an RVA study. That pace is much faster than copper's rollout, which took about 100 years to hit 90 percent of homes, he says.

"The objective right now is to get fiber as close as possible to the home, even if it's not all the way," Render says. "It's an investment that's worth the money because ... it has the best performance and best reliability."

Still, some customers, like my parents, can only hope for fiber at their homes in the next decade.

Combating brain drain

I park my mom's car on tree-lined Chestnut Street in downtown Atlantic, eager to learn about what's happening in the town where I graduated from high school. When I was growing up, Atlantic was where you could get cable TV and a strong cell connection. Where I lived, 12 miles away, we had a whopping five broadcast channels and constantly dealt with wireless "dead zones."

But now surrounding areas like Cumberland have internet just as fast, and sometimes even faster, than what Atlantic can offer.

When Russell Joyce looked for ways to boost Atlantic's economic prospects, one thing was obvious: The Iowa town needed to offer faster internet speeds, and they couldn't be too expensive for all but the biggest companies.

downtown-atlantic-iowa

Businesses in Atlantic, Iowa, can have fiber built to their businesses, if they need it.

Shara Tibken/CNET

As executive director of the Cass/Atlantic Development Corporation (CADCO), a public-private partnership to fund economic development, he'd explored at least two proposals for businesses that were considering setting up shop at a former call center on the outskirts of Atlantic, but that wanted fiber.

"The No. 1 question on forms [was] 'do you have fiber?'" Joyce says of the proposals from about six years ago. "We'd have to respond no."

In reality, most consumers today don't need fiber or gigabit speeds at home. But that changes when you start having local businesses or remote workers.

Take Pillar Technologies, an Ohio-based technology consulting company that does software development for everything from autonomous vehicles to health care. It gets a lot of its business from Silicon Valley companies that can't hire enough workers locally, says Linc Kroeger, whose title at Pillar -- "vanguard of future ready Iowa" -- reflects his efforts in the state.

Pillar aims to expand beyond its four main offices to smaller towns near its current locations in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; and Palo Alto, Calif. It plans to set up its first rural Iowa office in Jefferson, about 70 miles northwest of Des Moines.

Before even considering a town, the company has to know fiber is available.

"If we didn't have fiber, it wouldn't be a viable option," Kroeger says. All tools and data for an office's coders are located in the cloud. "And if we were supporting a client in San Francisco, we couldn't collaborate with them and couldn't get to any of the tools we use to create the tech."

Atlantic, home to Iowa Western Community College and an hour drive from Des Moines, could be a future office location, Kroeger says.

While Atlantic lacked fiber and gigabit broadband speeds six years ago, it has the option today. Mediacom, one of Atlantic's major ISPs, provides gigabit speeds to Atlantic and 308 other communities in Iowa using coax cable. It also uses newer coax technology that makes it capable of providing 10 Gbps download speeds, says J.R. Walden, Mediacom's chief technology officer.

Mediacom can provide fiber for individual businesses that need it, but the plans cost more than traditional coax service. And Mediacom has to wire the buildings to set up fiber. Sometimes -- about 10 percent of the time, the company says --  it passes the cost on to those businesses. 

But for anyone who needs fiber, it can be installed. Kroeger says the town has assured him he'd have fiber, should Pillar choose Atlantic for its newest office.

More than anything else, Pillar wants to stop the "brain drain of talent and youth" from rural parts of the country -- something that perfectly describes my situation. After graduating with honors from a small private college in Iowa, I moved to the East Coast for a journalism job and never looked back. After nearly seven years in New York, I now live in San Francisco. While I visit Iowa often, I don't see myself moving back anytime soon.

Pillar hopes that with options like its offices, more people will decide to stay in places like rural Iowa -- or even move there from cities.

"It's rare to talk about economic development in rural areas that's not agriculture and manufacturing," Kroeger says. "What we'd like to see is people relocating to rural America."

As for my parents, their great hope is that fiber makes its way to their home sooner rather than later. Until then, I may just have to camp out at my brother's house the next time I'm working from Iowa.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll someday be one of those people relocating to rural America -- but not unless I can get fast internet. 

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