This week, I want to deviate a little from the norm and talk about a huge problem that rural Ohioans – and in fact, all rural Americans – face on a day to day basis: the lack of a reliable broadband internet connection.
In this day and age, broadband access is not simply a luxury. Sure, we can use the Internet to shop or entertain ourselves. However, we can also use it to work remotely, start a business or get an education. With limited or non-existent access, rural Americans are missing out on a huge economic boon.
To put things into perspective, let me share my story with you. Once you see what my husband and I had to go through to get a working broadband connection – and how that access has changed my life – you’ll understand why broadband access for everyone is essential.
Ten years ago, my husband and I lived in a farmhouse in rural Ohio. We weren’t that out of the way – the nearest town was a 10-minute drive away, and the nearest DSL-equipped home was about a mile away from our house.
At the time, however, we didn’t even bother paying for an Internet connection. We had two choices:
- Dial-up Internet: To this day, you can still get a dial-up connection at that farmhouse, but the technology is so outdated that 56Kbps internet is impossible. Instead, the dialup connection is advertised at 28.8Kbps, but the top speed was actually usually 22 Kbps or 24.4 Kbps. Note that’s kilobytes per second, not megabytes. A connection that slow is basically not a connection at all.
- Satellite Internet: Dish Network and DirecTV (now HughesNet) both offered satellite plans, but avoided them for three reasons: Those connections were almost as slow as dialup, the installation and monthly fees were high, and the bandwidth caps were too restrictive.
About five years ago, someone finally built a 3G-capable tower close enough to our home that if you leaned out of the upstairs bedroom window on the northeast side, you could get one bar of signal.
My husband, obsessive tinkerer that he is, realized that on clear winter evenings, he could set his phone in the window, tether it to his laptop and – very slowly – surf the Internet. After playing with this for a couple of weeks, he bought amplifiers, repeaters, antennas and a bunch of other equipment I don’t fully understand. Our spare bedroom looked like an air traffic control center when he was done, but for the first time in years, we had an Internet connection capable of loading more than just text.
There were three major problems with our 3G setup:
- It only worked in the winter. A big, leafy tree blocked the signal in the summertime. Fortunately, a tornado took care of the tree one July afternoon.
- We were limited to 5-gigabyte bandwidth caps on each of our phones. Once the tree was out of the way, we upgraded to the unlimited data plans that Verizon offered at the time.
- Some days – perhaps because of weather or tower traffic – it didn’t work very well, if at all.
Throughout all of this, my husband quietly urged me to pursue a dream I had abandoned: freelance writing. However, I resisted because our connection still wasn’t reliable enough to support a job. No editor likes a freelance writer that can’t make deadlines, even if the cause is a flaky internet connection.
Three years ago, we moved to our current home in a small, out of the way village. We were a little farther from town, but one of the things that excited us about the move was that the area was covered by a wireless broadband network. The provider, formerly Omnicity, is called Broadband Networks Wireless Internet.
We waited a while after moving before signing up with this service. In fact, we waited until I was on the brink of being laid off from my job. At that point, with nothing to lose, I decided to throw myself into freelance writing, and we signed up for wireless broadband. Our plan was cheap, unlimited, and it worked all the time without needing a room full of amplifiers and other equipment.
For three months, that is.
One day in January, our connection just stopped working. That day was the start of an eight-month battle during which our connection got progressively worse. In the last two or three months, the service was so bad that it only worked for perhaps an hour or two per day – and that was if you were willing to sit in front of your computer, constantly refreshing pages until one finally loaded.
I will admit, I harangued tech support at BBN. I called weekly, sometimes daily, asking when, if or how they planned to fix our connection. I shouted at them that they were causing me to lose hundreds – thousands – of dollars’ worth of income. They were killing a career that had just gotten off the ground, all while refusing to admit that there was anything wrong with the connection. They claimed that it was interference from neighbors’ cordless phones and baby monitors – despite the fact that our house is well out of range of any other home.
The few times a tech support guy visited my home, he admitted that BBN’s network across Ohio was in shambles, and he was the only field tech in the state.
My husband went back to the drawing board. He had given up the unlimited data plan on his phone during an upgrade, but I had steadfastly refused to upgrade just so I could keep the unlimited plan. Our new home had 4G service, so he bought an off-contract phone that allowed tethering and registered it to my phone number. To our surprise, it worked. In fact, it worked far better and it was much faster than any other connection we had ever had.
I called BBN and politely told them where they could stuff their service.
Since then, my husband has made several upgrades to our connection, including a fancy new 4G router. We’ve had to shuffle cell phone lines around, and now we technically pay for three phone lines while we only have two working phones and one router, but it works. This connection lets me do something that no other connection has: write and make money. In fact, since we ditched BBN and went with 4G Internet, I’ve more than doubled my income.
Now, here are the problems:
- Most people don’t have unlimited data plans on their phones.
- If they do, they still may not have a reliable 4G or even 3G signal.
- It’s an expensive service – we pay twice what most people pay for our connection.
In addition, I am completely at the mercy of Verizon. Should they decide to discontinue unlimited plans, I’m out an Internet connection and a career unless I want to pay several hundred dollars per month for a 50 to 100 gigabyte plan, which would be completely unsustainable at this point.
The Moral of My Story
It took my husband and I months – years, even – to work our way to a reliable broadband connection. And we were lucky in many ways. We are one of the few homes in our village with a 4G signal, we are the only people we know that still have an unlimited cellular data plan, and if it weren’t for my husband’s technical know-how, none of this would have been possible.
That brings me to my second point. Around here, people think that I’m unusual for having an online career. Most of these people have long since cancelled their worthless wireless, satellite or dialup plans, and they can’t understand how I do it.
It shouldn’t be that way.
Each of these people should have access to the same opportunities that I’ve been given. Will everyone become a freelance writer? Of course not. But, we are an increasingly Internet-dependent society. Many of these people could do their office jobs in the comfort of their own home. Others could start an online business. Still more could become writers, designers, transcriptionists, data entry professionals, programmers or any number of a thousand online career paths. People could educate themselves and entertain themselves, but instead rural Americans are being left behind.