Broadband access: Who needs it, who gets it?

Visualization of the internet. Public domain.

Visualization of the internet. Public domain. Some additional interesting data graphics at the English Wikipedia entry on internet access.

A recent item from the CBC caught my eye “Arctic internet cable project moves closer to approval.”

A fibre optic company is one step closer to installing 15,000-kilometre cable across the arctic that has the potential to bring ultrahigh-speed Internet to the region.

Arctic Fibre just finished consulting with seven Nunavut communities where the cable will be closest to once installed. The cable will be embedded in the arctic ocean floor and connect Europe with Asia.

Here’s more on Arctic Fibre, including their press release regarding the technical feasibility of that proposal.

I bet a number of people reading that news have these reactions. 1) The Arctic? Really? Is that necessary? And, 2) How come the furthest ends of the earth may get broadband before my area does?

First, an aside: many so-called needs are only wants. And many wants are actually bad for us – or bad for the planet. Having admitted those relative truths, resource equity does loom as a huge issue. Educational resources and economic development matter a great deal. (They may matter more to people who have fewer such opportunities in the first place.)

So Arctic broadband access sounds like potentially good news. As long as the construction isn’t very destructive, a project of that scope could be an important upgrade for northern residents, in terms of quality of life, economic opportunity and productivity.

Some might say that rural life is its own reward and it need not include all the bells and whistles of modernity. While I don’t disagree with that philosophy, the internet does represent a kind of miracle – location independence for living and working. Something that wastes fewer natural resources for commuting and so forth. It can be part of the solution to cleaner, greener living.

I’ve seen this from both sides of the city/country divide. After years in Honolulu with good internet resources, we moved to urban Ottawa in the late 90s, where it was also easy to get high-speed broadband. After a year there, we moved to a small rural village. At the time, Kars had cable TV. So I just assumed broadband would be available as well. It wasn’t until after we’d bought and moved in that I discovered that was not the case. Nada, zip, none. Only dial up. As my husband was a high tech worker, this came as an unwelcome surprise.

I remember listening to the throne speech our first year in Kars. (That’s a laundry list litany of why-we-are-great and what-we’ll-do-next from the ruling government.) The speech had some snappy line about Canada being one of the most well-connected countries on earth, and how important it was to bring the internet to all Canadians. It was a grandiose boast, considering that no-internet Kars lay about 35 minutes from where that speech was delivered on Parliament Hill.

A few years later our area could boot-strap itself to the web by way of a small private company that offered radio-link internet – if you could establish line-of-sight from their tower to a dish on your property. (Not every property can manage this, depending on location and circumstances.) Towers and dishes sprang up right and left, including at our house. It worked pretty well as long as we kept the western tree belt trimmed. That’s when I could begin reporting for NCPR – something that would have been impossible without a high-speed connection.

All sorts of companies are working on this infrastructure challenge. Today there are probably three or four ways to get internet where we now live, in North Gower. Meanwhile, other areas still remain un-served or under-served.

It makes me want to revisit the history of telephone distribution and rural electrification, because of the similarities those examples must provide in terms of physical and policy challenges. Remember when phone companies had monopolies and long distance calls were expensive as a way to offset the extra costs of stringing lines out to sparsely populated regions? I’m not sure that model would fly today, but it was one way to serve more of the public.

Do you consider internet/broadband access something on par with a need? If so, and if that’s not being well met, who bears that responsibility? The individual? The private sector? Government? Private/public partnerships?

I know this discussion has been around for a long time, but how much progress have you seen? What, if anything, do you think still needs to be done?

The CBC article says the planned Arctic project could begin “ultrahigh-speed”service by 2016. What will your area have by then?

 

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4 Responses to “Broadband access: Who needs it, who gets it?”

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  1. Peter Hahn says:

    It seems that areas without broadband are at an economic disadvantage compared to similar areas with broadband. That would make broadband more of a necessity. Many many people consider cable a necessity, even if they are quite poor. Its a relatively cheap form of entertainment. But it is still entertainment. Lots of cheap entertainment now comes via broadband.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    When I first moved to the Adirondacks in 87, we could only pull in a couple of TV stations with an outside antenna. Now we have Dish and hundreds of channels.
    It was sometime in the 90′s when we got a computer and had the “joys” of dial up. Now we have reasonably good DSL. Not great but okay.
    I haven’t asked any real estate agents but I am certain the first question they get from some potential buyers of property is, “Does this place have Internet?”
    Like it or not, whether people want Internet for business and/or pleasure, it is the future.
    Many people regard cell phone service as essential. I don’t. Not opposed but just don’t care. Internet is another matter. It I view as essential for my job.

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    In terms of the importance of broadband, let me offer two anecdotes from my own life, both true and both telling.

    In a past life I worked with law enforcement agencies, among other things using information technology to help find suspects. One major project was to use powerful search mechanisms to look at publicly available data that might give relevant name and address information.

    In addition to the public databases law enforcement organizations coveted certain private data sources that they knew would be far more useful, for example telephone bills. Unlike the NSA they didn’t get them and we refused on principle to use any private data sources anyhow (and we surely would not have been given access). Of all the possible private data sources police talked about, one was coveted above all: the Internet/Cable bill. Perps would avoid phones, insurance, even the local energy bill through various means. But they had to have their cable and Internet (and apparently video store rental contracts, back when there were such places).

    I spent some time in the Republic of Georgia, recruiting programmers and systems developers to come to the US back when we had a shortage of such talent. This was just a few years after their civil war and with the war in Chechnya, which shares a border with them, still raging. The country was proud and resilient but it was a mess. In Tbilisi, where we stayed, there were reputedly hundreds of thousands of refugees. Squatters were everywhere. Apartment complexes were stripped to the prefab concrete panels with which they’d been built during the communist era. There were bullet holes in walls. Pensions to the elderly, when they could be paid at all, were a few US dollars per month.

    The infrastructure in Tbilisi was shaky. The power was on only half the time. Water was available intermittently. Phone service was down a lot. But astoundingly, the Internet was almost always up. I was told that it was considered vital. It stood, both symbolically and pragmatically, for the future, for connection to the outside world, for opportunity, for hope. Keeping it running was a cause of honor in Georgia.

    The Internet has fused itself into our cultural DNA. It has become essential in the way that other of our civilized trappings have become essential. Sure you can live without it just as you can live without a car or a phone. But take away all our phones and cars for a month and the US economy would be destroyed and chaos would reign in the streets. The Internet is rapidly approaching that level. If you consider smart phones to be part of that world (I do, they are) then arguably it is already there.

    The bad news is that the bandwidth demands of what I might call the Internet’s cultural baseline are skyrocketing, with no end in sight. Many of the technologies typically used in rural communities cannot hope to keep up. My home town of Madison, Wisconsin is one of the more Internet-hip towns in the country. Here the marketing tussle between providers has already moved from 6 Mbps or 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps as the new bragging territory. This leap has taken less than two years. Meanwhile practically every web site you can name has eschewed efficiency in favor of visual oomph, with loads of graphics and images and embedded videos everywhere you look. My paltry 3 Mbps connection, perfectly adequate in 2010, is a daily frustration now, and I am a comparatively light bandwidth consumer compared to younger generations who expect everything they’re getting. The only physical medium that is going to be able to keep up is fiber optic cable.

    Do we need all this? No. Is there any turning back? No. A sensory rich on-line world is an absolute given.

    Here’s the good news: a terrific group of people – private vendors, government employees, consultants, volunteers, entrepreneurs – is working together to wire the Adirondack region for the 21st century. Collectively they are crisscrossing the park with fiber trunk lines. Collectively they are advancing a variety of technologies and strategies to hook communities in the park both centralized and remote to this state-of-the-art infrastructure. Large swaths of Hamilton County are getting high speed Internet service. Trunk lines now bracket the eastern, western and northern sections of the park. A North Country Public Emergency Network is connecting 21 locations throughout the park with high speed broadband. These are but a few examples of many.

    This group meets monthly not just to work on infrastructure but to share best practices, disseminate information on funding sources, promote telecommuting and develop new applications and marketing strategies that position the Adirondack region as a perfect combination of wild and scenic beauty, rural living and leading-edge connectivity.

    Residents of the park know that we’re not there yet and some locations will take much time and money before they can join the party. But this group is a remarkable core of talent, our Regional Economic Development Council is winning big for us getting money for key projects and I am confident that the Adirondack region as a whole will move from being a rural area known for lacking in Internet connectivity to being a rural area known for leading in it, to the benefit of our economy.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    Pete Nelson thank you very much for that insightful and informative comment.

    While we can all point to good, bad and indifferent aspects to the Internet, more and more I think it will rival (exceed?) the invention of the printing press in terms of impact on humanity.

    Good broadband networks can lead to what Pete describes, where places like the Adirondack region might establish “… a perfect combination of wild and scenic beauty, rural living and leading-edge connectivity .”

    Best of luck to those working to make that so.