Monday, March 16, 2009

Bandwidth Stimulus For The Boonies

Things are changing out there among the amber waves of grain. Rural America is about to get plugged-into the Internet in a big way. This is the goal of the new broadband stimulus program that has $7.2 Billion to spread among the states on programs that speed up our access to the Internet.

Well it's high time for high speed. At a time when the South Koreans have announced plans to provide Gigabit broadband connections to their citizens, too many Americans go begging for 1/1000 of that. It's really two problems in one. First, sparsely populated areas have few Internet options compared to metropolitan areas. Second, broadband is pretty pricey and out of the range of many low income budgets.

It's not that rural America has NO Internet service. Dial-up Internet at a maximum of 56 Kbps can be had most anywhere there is a telephone. Thanks to universal telephone initiatives of past administrations, standard telephone service really is available just about everywhere. Prices of dial-up access have matured to where you can get a service such as NetZero HiSpeed for under $10 a month. That includes an accelerator to improve Web page download times.

Who still wants dial-up? You may be surprised at how many people really don't live their lives on the Internet. For them, checking email once or twice a day and being able to browse the news headlines or do a Google search for information is all they really want. Others may feel frustrated by slow loading multimedia content sites and little access to online video, but ten bucks a month is all they've got. The computer they picked up second hand may not be up to high bandwidth applications anyway.

You actually can get broadband just about anywhere you live. How? The same way you get TV - by satellite. HughesNet and Wild Blue satellite broadband Internet use a separate dish with a transmitter mounted on the feed so that you can both upload and download from the "bird" without having to use a phone line. Speeds are similar to DSL levels, from 512 Kbps to 1.6 Mbps. But prices from $55 to $80 a month plus equipment purchase or rental are well above most DSL services. With limited satellite capacity, fair use policies will cause the provider to cut your bandwidth if you do an excessive amount of uploading or downloading. There is also a half-second delay called latency that makes satellite unsuitable for activities needing instant response or VoIP telephony.

Businesses in rural areas can order T1 lines or bonded T1 lines to get increments of 1.5 Mbps dedicated bandwidth that comes with a service level agreement. Since T1 is provisioned over standard telephone wiring and can be boosted with regenerators, it is available in most business locations that have phone service. T1 is priced at business, not consumer, levels and even bonded lines are limited to 10 to 12 Mbps.

So what with the new stimulus plan do to change the bandwidth / pricing situation? The intent is to build out line and wireless services to cover as many people as possible with as much bandwidth as possible, while making higher bandwidths affordable in rural and low income metropolitan areas.

Why focus on broadband? The fact is that the Internet is to this century what other utilities such as electricity, telephone, and roads were to the development of the 20th century. Most jobs now involve some computer usage. We search online instead of running down to the library for research. More and more shopping is done on websites every year. If you are looking for a job, you'll likely search and post your resume online. Email messages have pretty much replaced personal letters. Most business now have an online presence and those that don't are few and far between.

The reality is that high speed Internet access, perhaps even to the Gbps level, is an enabler of higher productivity and commercial growth as well as personal potential. The stimulus package will make an impact over the next couple of years to advance our capabilities, but it will likely be just a good boost to an already expanding industry. Hopefully the infrastructure installed during this period will be enhanced and expanded in the future as what we consider high bandwidth today becomes low bandwidth by tomorrow's standards.

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