Narrowband Wastelands? Of rural America, death spirals, and the Narrow Belt

Looking back they will say: "It could have been avoided." They will say: "If only the government had been more effective, if only the telecommunication conglomerates had been less greedy."

Somewhere it will be noted that, back in the Fall of 2010, somebody wrote:

Narrowband wastelandThe fact that tens of millions of people living in America's rural communities lack adequate access to broadband services (data, video, voice over Internet) is painfully apparent when you drive beyond the suburbs.

Some rural communities have broadband, others do not. Some of the latter are waiting to receive expanded broadband access that is being created with the help of federal stimulus spending, others are not.

And for this last group, the places that didn't make the cut for stimulus grants, the places that appear to be of zero interest to the nation's telecomm companies, the future looks grim. Such places may be destined to become narrowband wastelands, stagnant economic backwaters.

The fact is, during the last five years broadband has become an essential part of our national infrastructure, the dominant channel of communication for industry, enterprise, employment, medicine, government, education, and entertainment. Communities that do not have access to broadband are increasingly considered "off the grid" and out of the mainstream. In short, not the kind of place in which your kids or grand-kids will want to live or work.

By 2015 you will have trouble selling or renting any property that does not have access to broadband, and that means lower property values, which means lower tax revenues, which will impact schools and infrastructure, which will further reduce property values. In short, a death spiral.

Those patches and swathes of America's countryside where the only Internet access options are dialup or satellite will become narrowband wastelands: The Narrow Belt. This Narrow Belt faces a spiral of accelerating economic decline at least as pernicious as that which devastated the Rust Belt.

Sure, if you lower your prices you still may be able to sell or rent in the Narrow Belt, but only to members of that increasingly rare group of people who think that Internet technology is just a passing fad, an unnecessary distraction, or a violation of some divine plan. We all know that is a rapidly shrinking pool of potential property buyers (with the possible exception of the Amish, who are expanding their rural holdings).

Furthermore, but often overlooked, there is this fact: Even those people who have no personal interest in broadband are aware that most other people do. Even the unconnected can see that connection adds value, lack of connection subtracts. Face it, as a factor in property valuation, access to broadband is here to stay; confinement to narrowband is now a form of property blight.

We are approaching the fourth quarter of 2010. The federal broadband stimulus funds have been allocated. If your home or community does not yet have access to broadband and is not part of a stimulus-backed broadband build-out, you need to start thinking about the alternatives (if you have not already). As I explore these alternatives, I will keep you posted.

The only way to save rural America from becoming a narrowband wasteland may be for the people who live there to take matters into their own hands. Let us hope they do so in a constructive way.

Notes:

A. Satellite Internet: For a variety of technical reasons, which I will be describing in my forthcoming whitepaper, satellite should be considered narrowband and not broadband. The latency of satellite Internet is worse than dialup and satellite's capacity constraints and bandwidth caps mean high speed data transfers are only available in short bursts. As providers like HughesNet state themselves, satellite is not recommend for, or does not support, five technologies at the core of any functional definition od broadband: streaming video, VPN, VoIP, real-time trading, and large file downloads like security patches and other software updates for operating systems and productivity applications.

B. The Amish: I am not qualified to comment on what the Amish think of the Internet, but I have a strong hunch you will see a correlation between expansion of Amish farms and the narrowband wasteland.

Of Nerds and Whitepapers, Satellites and Cynics

You know you are a nerd if...You spend your spare time writing technical whitepapers. And that's what I've been doing. Apparently, it's not nerdy enough that, for the last two years, I have spent at least 40 hours a week--and often many more--working on contract for a software company for whom, among other things, I write whitepapers. No, in my spare time I feel compelled to write more.

Not that the world is papered with my whitepapers. Many don't see the light of day, not because they're not good, but because a whitepaper often has to hit a moving target and few targets move faster than a software startup. However, I will soon be releasing one of my "spare time" whitepapers because the target is, as I see it, frozen in the headlights of public attention.

That target is the terrestrial telcos, the nation's broadband providers, the folks making loads of money delivering big fat juicy bandwidth to urban and suburban consumers, maximizing their profits by avoiding servicing the rural areas through which their bandwidth passes on its way from one profit center to another.

This seems to be a very American problem. In many civilized countries there are universal service requirements with respect to broadband (as there are in America with respect to telephone service). In order to stave off broadband service requirements in America the terrestrial telcos have formed an alliance with the non-terrestrial telcos, that is, the satellite Internet service providers. The strategy? Convince politicians and government regulators that every rural American can get broadband (without the need for running fiber optic cable or coaxial cable or DSL phone lines) because satellite Internet service is available everywhere. The problem I have with this is summed up in the title of my forthcoming whitepaper: SATELLITE IS NOT BROADBAND.

That's right, satellite is not broadband and it never will be. And the terrestrial telcos know this. The non-terrestrial telcos say as much on their own websites. (The short version: there's too much latency and not enough capacity, so satellite Internet cannot realistically support VPN, streaming movies, real-time trading, VoIP, automated software patching, interactive learning systems, or SaaS applications.)

Despite this, the strategy of "Let them eat satellite" is being pursued by lobbyists in state capitals and our nation's capitol. For example, the FCC website at www.broadband.gov now lists satellite as a broadband option, which is like the U.S. Department of Transportation saying motorcycles are an interstate freight delivery option. The bankrolling of this cynical hoax by the terrestrial telcos upsets me for a variety of reasons, the most immediate being:

a. Where I live we can't get proper broadband right now (Time Warner Cable's business division recently told me it would cost "over $100,000" to bring cable to my home office, even though they offer cable service less than 5 miles from here).

b. We can't afford to change where we live (that's not the fault of the terrestrial telcos, although they do seem to be guilty of perpetuating an attitude that says "If you can't get broadband where you live, just move to one of our service areas").

c. I recently committed myself to raising public awareness of a potentially fatal genetic disorder, widespread ignorance of which causes much needless pain and suffering. This project would go a lot better if my current Internet connection didn't suck so badly. (You can see the first phase of the project at www.CelticCurse.org.)

d. My current Internet connection is satellite Internet service, which is NOT broadband.

So, as I prep the presses for this whitepaper, I am marshaling my arguments and rounding up my footnotes. My hope is to provide--in the form of a well-argued and well-documented whitepaper--powerful ammunition for the patriotic forces of fairness and justice now arrayed against the self-interested terrestrial telcos.

ATELLITE IS NOT BROADBAND