Broadband Gaps | FREE WHITEWATER

Broadband Gaps

There’s a story over at Wisconsin Watch that reports on the broadband gap in rural Wisconsin communities. Peter Cameron reports Broadband gap leaves rural Wisconsin behind during coronavirus crisis (‘Wisconsin’s dearth of high-speed internet in rural areas makes virtual schooling, remote health care and working from home even more difficult’):

Already, Wisconsin lags behind the national average in broadband coverage. An estimated 43% of Wisconsin’s rural residents lack access to high-speed internet, compared to about 31% of rural residents nationwide, according to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

“We have such a long ways to go,” said state Sen. Jeff Smith, a Democrat who has tried unsuccessfully to increase the state’s investment in broadband. “And now this is going to be one of the things that comes out of this (crisis) when we’re all done: ‘I guess we shouldn’t have dragged our feet for so long, and now we’d better get serious about it.’ ”

Whitewater from most rural communities because there is a university campus in town, and for many of the city’s residents who are students, broadband is simply an ordinary part of life. I’d guess – and only guess – that broadband is less common outside of the campus than some might think.

Some residents likely use mobile phones for internet access. The speed of local mobile connections, the data imitations on mobile plans, and the size of phone screens would mean that those residents’ internet experiences would look nothing that of others who use a dedicated broadband modem. I’m sensitive to this gap – there’s a profound difference between writing while using multiple connections & devices and thinking everyone else has that same experience. They certainly don’t. Whitewater is not a homogeneous community – it’s a small city of different, smaller communities, not all of whom have the same experiences.

There’s a way in which Old Whitewater likes to imagine – pretend, really – that they’re all of the town. They’re not – demographically, they’re not even all of the half of the non-student part of the town.

These years since the Great Recession have left many rural towns with uneven prospects, over-written statements from development men notwithstanding.

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Badger State of Mind
11 months ago

You don’t notice how hollow things are until a crisis hits.

11 months ago

There is certainly a dearth of decent even modest-speed internet in Rural Wisco-World. We are long past time for a broadband equivalent of the Rural Electrification Administration. With the current crisis draining all available bux out of all governments, it is not going to happen soon, or even in my remaining lifetime. Paying off the Coronavirus bill will used as a reason to throttle any and all worthwhile social programs for the next generation.

The thing is, rural broadband is at least as much of an economic program as it is a social one. Farms got along without electricity for forty years after it was widely available in the city, but they sure got a lot more productive after the REA was formed in 1935. It’s not possible to efficiently run any sort of business, including a farm, without decent internet today. Without it, you get put at a competitive disadvantage for almost everything involving information, and a social disadvantage as well, as a huge amount of interaction occurs on screens, these days.

The issue is, of course, ROI for the phone companies. If it were not for the happy situation that DSL runs on existing phone lines, there would be very little internet at all in the more bucolic areas of the state. Copper twisted-pair phone wire is a non-ideal medium, as local loop (the distance to the nearest fiber-hub) length pretty rapidly degrades DSL speed. Plowing in fiber where there are two customers per mile is not going to happen without massive subsidies or coercive governmental edict.

Non phone-line solutions are sub-optimal. There isn’t cable TV in most of rural Wisco-World for the same reason that there isn’t much fiber-optic service, so cable internet isn’t possible. There is some radio-delivered WiMAX-hub service from some small-town phone companies and independent operations like Bug Tussle. They suffer from limited line-of-sight to very many customers in the driftless region of the state, where I live.

Geosynchronous satellite internet (HughesNet, mostly) systems have significant performance issues, mostly relating to the long time-of-flight of radio signals back and forth to the satellite, 22,000 miles up. TCIP formatted digital data hates latency. “Up-to-xxMB” is one of the great aspirational goals, never to be reached, of the internet world. Specifying “up-to” weasels them out of actually specifying throughput, where they could get held to it by contract.

It’s informative that 91%(by one survey) of HughesNet customers are not satisfied with their service and would drop it in an instant, if something else shows up. AT&T/HughesNet knows that and locks you into a two-year contract with a hefty cancellation penalty.

There have been other since-abandoned schemes, like BPL (Broadband over Power Lines), that promised broadband to all, but there is one nascent technology that is quite likely to happen in the near-term. That is Elon Musk’s StarLink LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite constellation. LEO satellites have low latency, which hugely improves throughput, compared to geosynchronous systems. The rub is that it takes a lot of satellites to get coverage, as they are whizzing across the sky pretty fast and it is impractical to track them. It is necessary to have a fixed antenna that can see at least one satellite all of the time.

SpaceX/StarLink originally got authorization for 10,000 LEO satellites. They have since bumped their request to a million birds. I first thought that was a crazy number of satellites, but I underestimated Musk badly. He has, after all, transformed the auto industry, the power storage business, and the space-delivery business. Now he is working on going to Mars, and is using StarLink to fund it. I would not bet against him.

SpaceX launches 60 satellites at a time and has 360 on-orbit as of now. Another 60 will go up this week. He is planning on having a minimum constellation of a thousand, or so, satellites on-orbit and selling service this year. Musk has pretty much single-handedly frozen any voluntary rural broadband infrastructure investments by private enterprise. The phone companies have bean-counters that understand that plowing in fiber, with a 20-year payback, when it will be obsolete in a very few years, is not prudent. They will not invest in any rural broadband that does not paid for immediately with cash-on-the-barrel-head.