Monday

Internet For The Rest Of Us

In the USA, if you don't live in or around a metro area of some kind, you are pretty much on your own as far connecting to the Internet. In the US today about 30% of adults do not have access to a broadband Internet connection, and about 10% have access only via their smartphone. While cell phone coverage maps often show lots of colorful areas, in truth there are still many places where your options are rather limited. To some extent, it's understandable that such a geographically large country might suffer in that regard, but just what are the options?

First of all, a somewhat common misunderstanding is that WiFi, cell phone voice and data reception are somehow the same thing.  WiFi is a short-range type of connection - it's not an Internet connection in itself, it's just a method of allowing multiple computers to connect to an existing Internet connection. Cell voice coverage and data coverage is not always the same ("data" referring to the ability to connect to the Internet, as with a smartphone).

In more rural areas, cell data coverage is typically poor, and there is no cable or even DSL to provide connectivity. Although users may have a perfectly good phone line, DSL service is only available in a relatively small area around telephone company switch hardware - so, truly rural DSL is still the stuff of dreams.

A small group of hardy souls (about 3% according to Pew) still rely on a "dial-up" connection, using the regular telephone line and a modem; this is slow (particularly so on modern websites) and is not practical for any sort of streaming video or really even audio. In the first incarnation of the public Internet, web pages were mostly static and had few images, whereas today's web is very media intensive, with sound, video and animated items - all of these really demand broadband of some kind. But for simply "keeping in touch" dial-up may be "good enough" and inexpensive enough for most.

Satellite Internet connectivity is often touted as the solution for those who need broadband and live outside of normal coverage areas. Broadband is usually defined as a minimum connection speed of 4Mb/s "down" and 1Mb/s "up" - most traffic would be considered "down", that is from the web page to the user. Sending an email would be traffic going "up" to the server.

Satellite has a couple of disadvantages that may be a big deal depending on your usage. Firstly, it can be expensive $50-100 per month or more. Second, the data usage is invariably "capped" (limited) at some amount - if you go over that usage per month or per day (however the cap works), you are cut back or cut off (and maybe pay more). That can be a real issue if you plan on streaming a lot of movies.

Lastly, Satellite suffers from high latency - simply meaning it takes fractions of a second for the signal to go "from here to there and back again", which introduces a noticeable delay that would adversely affect the ability to use video chat for example. If you have ever seen the awkward pauses during satellite interviews on TV, you know what can happen.

In the future, we may see more roll out of fiber and so on, but really increasing coverage to most people will take time. Some countries use more novel methods, such as in Scotland (land of my birth!) where Internet traffic is encoded into the power grid in some areas, so that remote homes can get service as long as they have electricity from the grid. Other solutions could be employed, such as Google's current experimental "WiFi in the sky" project intended for remote areas of Africa and Asia, and of course there may be technologies that we just have not heard of yet waiting in the wings.

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