City Mouser, Country Mouser

Folks might be surprised to learn that lots of farms did without electricity until nearly halfway through the 20th Century. It wasn’t because they were sticks-in-the-mud or Amish. It was because in the cities a handful of poles could bring power lines to a hundred houses, but in the country, it might take a hundred poles to run power lines to a handful of farms. Even with government programs offering to pay for half the poles, it still wasn’t economically justified to electrify rural areas. Many farms finally electrified not to have lights and electric ovens in the house, but to provide power for barn equipment.

Now the issue is internet access. Back when AOL was sending out free 3.5″ floppies in the mail and dial-up was almost the only way anyone got online, very few people in my hometown bothered to get online. Why? AOL was a long-distance call. Internet was prohibitively expensive for what one was able to get.

Think it’s better today? In some ways, yes. Internet is no longer a long-distance phone call, but it’s still a lot slower than it could be. Of the three ISP’s offering Wi-Fi in my area, one is a cable-TV provider that claims speeds “up to” 100 Mb/s. What the “typical” connection speed is, I have my doubts (since I don’t have cable to test it). The other two are the major landline phone company in the area and a regional cell-phone company, both of which offer plans that max out at 24 Mb/s (In my area, anyway. One of them has great reviews for its 100Mb/s plan–somewhere else.)

One of them claims that 12 Mb/s is adequate for one or two devices. Maybe back in the day that was true, but now web pages are so bloated with widgets and cascading style sheets–and everyone and their brother wants you to watch “this quick video” (that might end up being 30 minutes long, assuming no buffering), that I wouldn’t trust a connection slower than 18Mb/s per device.

Unfortunately, even 12 Mb/s is too much to expect when everyone goes home from their work connections and logs in through their residential connections find they’ve only got 2 Mb/s to work with. Enough to read text-only emails, but slow as molasses in January for anything more. A few weeks ago, there was a “town hall” meeting about the problem. Not much came of it. If the ISP’s get a few extra bucks here and there, they channel it into making the urban connections faster, because there’s more potential customers to be gained by improving urban service. All the rural subscribers are doing is subsidizing access for urban customers.

This is especially frustrating because software–and even hardware–developers assume consumers have reliable, fast internet. Corporations such as Adobe, which offer their latest software as cloud-based subscription only, or Amazon, which design their Kindle software to expire after a particular date, assuming you can easily download their latest reader whenever they decide you should. Those funky new speakers Amazon and Google are pushing? I think they’d be paperweights around here.

I don’t know what the solution to this digital divide will be. Probably a new class–“digitally destitute.” As a country, we don’t have the money to keep our roads and bridges in condition, much less update millions of miles of old copper phone lines. But just remember if you’re getting ready to pop a video into your next bulk emailing: just because we country mousers technically have internet doesn’t mean we have all the bandwidth you might take for granted.

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