Friday, January 27, 2012

Improving the Country Through Rural Wi-Fi

I heard about the introduction of "Whitespace Broadband" in Wilmington, North Carolina this morning on NPR and then saw an article about it when I got to work.

This is a GREAT thing!

I grew up rural. We had four channels: the big three and PBS (my wife had two with occasional PBS). By the time I got to junior high, we had a fifth channel broadcasting syndicated shows in the UHF range. We couldn't get cable - unless we paid to lay it - and satellite was just coming into vogue - albeit with a huge metal receiver dish that would make the NSA proud.

Over the years, I have spent most of my life in a rural/semi-rural environment. Without government subsidizing electricity, water, phone, and road infrastructure, these folks would still be living the life of Russian serfs. One of the last areas that has been built up to a decent level is internet access. The use of the old analog TV radio frequencies for this is a HUGE step forward. Access will improve and (more importantly) speeds will improve.

Why is speed important? Currently, most rural internet users live in 1996. Dial-up is the rule, not the exception (note - yes, there is satellite and microwave internet, but they are both prohibitively expensive and each has it's own issues). My in-laws have dial-up. Most ISPs advertise access speeds above 56Kbps, yet the lines and equipment used for transmission is sixty years old (or older). This may allow downloads in the 24-36Kbps range and uploads about 14Kbps... OK, most rural internet users live in 1994.

My internet access at home is in the 7-10Mbs (7000-10,000Kbps) range with uploads in the 2-3Mbs range. I can email a document (conservatively) eighty times faster than they receive it. I can download webpages almost 200 times faster... Loading video on dial-up is prohibitively ssssssslllllllloooooowwwwwwww on dial-up... let's not even go there... Whitespace Broadband is apparently faster than my Cable Internet, but I would like to see the numbers from Wilmington.

An effect of this - less education about what is going on in the world around you. Yes, you have your satellite TV. Yes, you can keep track of what is going on from the point of view of the news channel you choose to watch. However, you don't have access to the Khan Academy, foregoing one of the best learning institutions on the planet. You don't have access to the Weather Channel info about your specific location, foregoing information about the hurricane, tornado, or blizzard bearing down on you..You don't have access to all of the news sources the world has to provide, foregoing the opportunity to learn about opposing viewpoints and the chance to be a better informed citizen.

If this isn't inequity, I don't know what is.

I am not trying to suggest, as some are, that the Internet is a human right. I am suggesting that the better educated the populace, the better the country. Expand Internet infrastructure cheaply and efficiently and your people will reward you. But first, they will have to get in line behind the residents of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Other articles on this:
Network World
PCMag - with explanation of how this works and it is not really 'Wi-Fi'
PC World

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