Tech by VICE

What Living With Modern Rural Internet is Really Like

The FCC chairman wants to make it easier to bring broadband to rural areas, and it's a noble goal.

by Leif Johnson
Jun 20 2017, 10:00am

Image: Leif Johnson/Motherboard

Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai rightfully gets a lot of crap for his hostility toward net neutrality, but as someone who lives and works out where the Milky Way still shines in its full glory at night, I can't help but admire his talk of bridging the "digital divide" between "those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not." This is a necessary thing. I don't think people in major cities understand how bad it is out here.

In a statement last week, Pai praised Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) for introducing a bill that would provide tax incentives for companies who expand broadband internet access to rural areas in what Pai calls "Gigabit Opportunity Zones." Pai described these zones in a speech outlining his agenda last September.

"The concept is simple," he said. "Provide financial incentives for internet service providers to deploy gigabit broadband services in low-income neighborhoods. Incentivize local governments to make it easy for ISPs to deploy these networks. And offer tax incentives for startups of all kinds in order to take advantage of these networks and create jobs in these areas."

Last month Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced a similar bill to that of Collins's in the Senate.

"Having just traveled across five Midwestern and Northern Plains states, I can tell you that much of rural America is on the wrong side of the digital divide," Pai, a native of rural Parsons, Kansas, said in his statement. "Many urban areas are, too. Encouraging investment in economically disadvantaged communities can close that divide and benefit all Americans."

So how bad is it on the other side of the digital divide? Let's put it this way. I live on a ranch in rural Goliad County, Texas, which only has 7,500 people. Yes, in the entire county. I'm currently writing this while using my iPhone's Verizon hotspot, as the internet service I pay $116 a month for constantly keeps cutting out. I suspect it's because the anaqua tree in the old corral has grown enough to block the fixed signal as it comes in from the cellular tower in town, and I currently don't have time to trim it or chop it down. It doesn't bother me; I have an unlimited plan and the hotspot's slightly faster anyway. This, after my provider recently triumphantly told me he'd upgraded my service to 12MB per second. I was getting 5 before. In practice, most of the time I'm lucky to get 2MB per second.

So yeah, hi, I'm a tech journalist who's chiefly known for his work with gigabyte-heavy video games, and somehow I live with this as my reality.

From my Steam account. This is on a good day. Image: Leif Johnson/Motherboard

In such circumstances, ads for services like Verizon FIOS —which offers 150 MBps for $80 a month—seemed steeped in myth. Almost every aspect of contemporary internet interaction requires tolerating some kind of compromise. We're quite capable of enjoying Netflix and Hulu out here, but I find myself reluctant to use the latter since every commercial break resets the download stream and triggers multiple starts and stops before the picture starts moving again. Many people I know still buy physical games and movies, not out of a belief in their inherent superiority, but because they simply don't require hours or days for the media to download. The internet can be such a hassle that many people don't even bother with it. Tacking a paper ad on the corkboard at the local feed or grocery store, for instance, is a far better way to get attention than posting an ad on Craigslist.

Mind you, I have it good. You can find a dead zone a few miles northwest of me where you can't get any fixed wireless service at all. You'll have to deal with satellite internet there, which is usually saddled with outrageously low data caps. The fact that I can even do my job out here proves that the dream of the internet as a tool that connects us all is partly a reality. Just a little more than a decade ago, I would have had to live in San Francisco or New York to do what I do. Yet my situation also proves how important it is for internet access to keep up with the times to maintain that ideal. As it is, I see my professional situation growing more precarious here by the day. Streaming live gameplay footage is essentially out of the question here due to sluggish upload speeds, which means I'm missing out on substantial publicity. Downloading 45GB games can take many hours, which can impact my deadlines for quick turnarounds.

Things are looking up. In town, anyway. Image: Leif Johnson/Motherboard

This list, frankly, is just a taste of what we have to deal with, and I know I'm a special case both owing to my circumstances and the fact that I'm one of the few people willing to pay such an insane price for what counts as decent internet service here. It's only getting worse as regular file sizes get larger and larger with each year and as we embrace the so-called "4K revolution."

Hopefully this can be accomplished without sacrificing net neutrality in the process, but as things stand, rural America is getting left behind.

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