[imgcontainer right] [img:100_0909.jpg] This is me, at the edge of town. We’ve got most things you need in Stamping Ground — or at least near here. Except for real broadband. [/imgcontainer]

It’s a wonder anyone in the rural U.S. bothers to have an Internet connection – certainly anyone living more than 10 minutes from a town of any reasonable size.

Not only are the available options painfully slow – though the satellite ISPs tout their wares with phrases such as “blisteringly fast” – they are expensive and the “service providers” (their words, not mine) do everything in their power to keep you in their talons once they have you signed up.

For $50 a month I have only once reached a download speed of more than 260 kbs. Their explanation? It’s because I’m bundled with an evil TV service provider that restricts the amount of bandwidth it allocates to me. However, if I were to sign a new stand-alone contract with the ISP and pay for a new installation of the latest equipment and a more-expensive plan, then my service would miraculously improve.

Or so they tell me. It must be a joke, right? Why would any company allow another to tarnish its name by downgrading its service — all the while working in partnership with it?

The providers of cable, satellite and landline services have apparently borrowed a leaf from the same manual used by the companies that own the cargo ships. That’s the page where it tells you how to divide your world – in this case the U.S. – into spheres of influence but still maintain the illusion of competition. It’s horrifying.

Appalled by the obstructionist attitudes I encountered as I tried to work through my problems, and the possible damage to his reputation, the small businessman who’d installed my new TV service organized a three-way phone hook-up with my ISP (Company A) to see if we could find a solution. Could I keep my old account and equipment while they sent out an installer with the new gear? No, I’d have to sign a new contract. Well I might as well cancel all together. 

[imgcontainer left] [img:house-1.jpg] My place, the house broadband forgot. [/imgcontainer]

The ISP rep, all helpful and condescending – why do these people all assume you’re not as smart as they? – said something like, “Don’t do that, sir; I appreciate your problem and I’ll switch you through to someone who may be able to help.” 

In a flash we found ourselves talking to a sales rep with another company, one that advertises itself as Company A’s chief and fiercest competitor. I kid you not and I’ll swear to it in court if it comes to that. In response to our incredulous question, Company B’s salesman said: “We are a sister company, sir.”

How did things get to this state and why is the U.S. so far behind in communications technology (29th in the world and slipping) – especially in what is available to people who live outside city limits? It’s not that the country around Stamping Ground, Kentucky, is sparsely populated. Nor is there any resistance to the idea of affordable access to truly high-speed Internet for all Americans, regardless of where they live. (Note to ISPs: 1Mbs is not high speed. That is considered slow everywhere except in your advertising. South Korea is already testing a 1Gbs network that will be up and running next year.)

Nor does U.S. Internet service come all that cheap. Daily Infographic this year published a statistical map* crediting the U.S. with an average speed of 4.8Mbs at an average cost of $3.33 per Megabit; Japan is shown at 61Mbs and $0.27 per Mb. 

I’d dispute the U.S. figures because my guess is that only major population centers figured in the calculations. My average speed is far less and my cost far more than is quoted for the U.S., and I’m willing to bet there are many people in the same slow and leaking boat. Government surveys indicate that something less than half of all Americans enjoy access to truly high-speed Internet service and, of those who do, less than half receive service qualifying as true broadband, despite the ISPs’ claims.

What’s to be done about it? If the government did what is being done in Australia and ran fiber-optic cable wherever wireless doesn’t reach and launched a few satellites better able to handle Internet communications, then things might improve.

And it’d certainly give the flagging economy a boost. The network could be sold to private interests once it was up and running – with a stipulation that service must be maintained in rural areas – or kept as an income generator for Social Security and Medicare. 

Of course there’d be the usual howls of  “socialism” and the big corporations would argue that they do things better and more efficiently than government. Maybe they can, but they don’t. Service to clients and country comes at best a very poor fourth after executive bonuses, profits and “responsibilities to our shareholders.”

(I note that the CEO of one service – which may or may not be the one I cancelled due to high cost and lousy service – has been awarded a year’s compensation just a McDonald’s or two shy of $33 million.)

We are ankle deep in politicians’ crocodile tears shed over business, competition from cheap foreign labor and the plight of the struggling middle-class (forget the poor; they’re always complaining). But part of the remedy is staring them in the face. And not only would a national, hybrid high-speed wireless/fiber-optic/satellite network make rural businesses more competitive, it would do wonders for health and emergency services, traffic lights, schools and the 1001 other things we now depend on in our increasingly complex world.

But shoot, what do I know? I’m just some grudge-ridden malcontent living way out in the boondocks – all of 20 minutes from the State Capital, 15 minutes from a county seat and 35 minutes from the State’s second-largest city. No doubt I get what I deserve.

Frank Povah is a writer and editor living in Stamping Ground, Kentucky.

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