Rural Internet Thoughts

Last week Microsoft made a big announcement about how they are going to invest a sum of money into bringing broadband to the 25 million rural Americans who don’t currently have access. I applaud this effort because it is sorely needed and it will be the heat death of the universe before telecoms will spend the money to build out these sparse areas. Since many of you reading this have good to great internet I thought I would give you a little idea of what it has been like here in a very rural part of Missouri.

When we moved here to the farm in 2009 we had dial-up service through our telephone provider CenturyLink. We had established this before we moved so when we came down for a weekend to move stuff we could get on the internet and check email and browse the web. We had DSL in Chicago (at that time a whopping 768Kb service) so dial-up was not feasible long term.

CenturyLink had announced it was bringing DSL to our area but as it turned out the copper wire and old infrastructure was so bad they could only get reliable service about 2 miles down the road from the equipment building on the main highway which left us about three miles short. We had no cell service (still don’t) so the only high-speed internet option was satellite. At the time we could have chosen between Wild Blue (not around any more) and HughesNet. We chose HughesNet since they had a better plan and more history. The service was 3 Meg down but only 128K up -way better than dialup and faster on the download than our previous DSL in Chicago. The slow upload was not an issue at the time but the other two limitations that come with satellite -high latency and quotas – were major downsides.

High latency means you get pings of around 600 to 900 ms which causes delays in opening web pages and can also cause sites to think you are dropping packets and keep resending which means pages sometimes don’t load. Secure websites can be more sensitive to high ping rates. The reason you get this with a satellite is because in order to cover a large area of the globe, these birds are in geosynch orbit which is 22,500 miles above the earth. So a signal has to travel from our dish to the bird, then back down to the ground station that connects to the web then back up to the bird and back down to our dish – a round trip of 90,000 miles. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second so that is a half second right there. Then add the typical times to process and such and you get those long ping times.

For the most part you get used to the extra time it takes to open pages and delays caused by this but the quotas are the real bugaboo. Since the satellite has a limited capacity they have to try to balance the usage among all the users, during the day and evening we had 350 MB per day of use. For web browsing and email that was not a problem. Updates and large file downloads were the issue. These had to be downloaded during our “free” time between 2AM and 7AM.

Even with these restrictions in the early days this setup was fine but then a few years later we both had iPads, social media was in full swing plus mobile games meant the daily quota was onerous. We ran over several days a month and the slow down to basically dialup speeds was horrible. Then Janice got the opportunity to be a beta tester for HughesNet and that meant the daily quota was increased to 500MB and anything left over was added the next day which helped some. We still had to do updates at night or for the iPads we could drag them into town and use wi-fi at places like restaurants and such.

We would call CenturyLink every six months and ask when we were going to get DSL and we always got the same response “You are on the list but we can’t say when it will be available”. Every time we would see a spool of orange cable being installed in the county we would be jealous and wonder if maybe we were next. Last spring we read in the local paper that CenturyLink had accepted a large portion of the funds from the government to build out broadband to unserved areas here in Missouri. A few months later we had some line problems with the phone and while talking with the repair tech he said we were supposed to get DSL this year. So far no orange cable.

But don’t feel too sorry for us because earlier this year HughesNet put a new satellite online and Janice got in on the beta. In May we got a new dish put up (it is a little bigger than the old one) and a new modem which has the router built in and we have rocking internet for the first time here at the farm. We get 15-25 Meg download speeds and 3 Meg upload which is very sweet. Updates that would take hours are now done in minutes. We can stream video if we want as long we don’t watch a movie every day (we still have a quota) but the quota is monthly instead of daily. When we go out of town or on vacation we don’t lose the data for the day. The bonus period is not unlimited but it is large enough that we would never use it all in a month and it goes to 8AM which means in the morning when we use the internet the most we are mostly on the bonus time and we can do updates then because they finish well before the bonus period expires. Happily the one month we went over our limit the day before the month end, our speeds were not much slower. As more people sign up for this upgraded service we may see some slow down but for now it is sweet.

The latency still exists but even it is a bit less either due to the faster upload speed and/or some improvements to the ground network. Since we aren’t real concerned about video streaming this setup is exactly what we need. If DSL ever does come we will see what kind of speeds they offer and at what price to see if it is actually better. Hopefully we will have that chance but I would not be surprised if it is years before we see DSL here in our corner of the Ozarks.

In summary if your only option is satellite there are at least two providers almost everywhere and if you have reasonable expectations about what your service will provide you likely be satisfied. Online gaming is likely to be impossible because of the latency , facetime or Skype may be a little out of synch, large data downloads will have to be done off peak and you will be very limited in your video streaming. As long as you accept that, satellite is not as bad as some would make you think and certainly better than it was last decade.