Friday, September 4, 2009

Rural Internet

My family and I are preparing to move out of the city and into a more rural setting. As part of that move, I've been researching what sorts of internet service will be available to us. At our current residence we have a number of different options for high speed internet service. We currently use the U-Verse service offered by AT&T. We are using the 1.5Mbps service, which adds $15 / month in cost to our U-Verse television bill. Comcast also offers high speed internet service, and I'm sure we could get DSL from any number of folks. Go a few miles outside of a dense residential area and your options quickly become limited.

There are four types of service that I have found that will be available at our new location:
  • Dial-Up
  • Satellite
  • Cellular Wireless
  • Microwave Wireless
Dial-up internet service is the old standby that hasn't changed in over 10 years. The top speed is still pegged at 56kbps (ignoring the "speed boosting" tech that some vendors claim). Depending on the service provider, rates run anywhere from $10-$20 / month. However, we don't plan on having a home phone, so add to this cost the price to install a home phone (around $25 / month with AT&T) for the sole purpose of using dial-up, and it comes to $35 or more per month for that sluggish dial-up internet connection. It would be useful for the most basic internet uses: browsing basic web pages and sending e-mail. Forget about online gaming or rich web media though. Compare this to our U-Verse service, which is the equivalent of 1,500kbps for $20 less each month, and it would be a serious step backward.

There are a few satellite internet providers, Hughes and WildBlue being the most prominent. Hughes offers 1.0Mbps down, 128kbps up service for $60 / month, while WildBlue tiers their service at 512K down / 128K up for $50, or 1.5M down / 256K up for $80. Those are fine speeds, if a little pricey. The real gotcha here is latency. It used to be that with satellite internet you only received data over the dish, and all of your uploads were on your telephone line. Now you get both your up and down data from the dish, but the latency can be anywhere up to 5 seconds. Compare that to the typical sub 0.1 second latency of other internet connections, and it is a big downer. This makes the satellite internet service unusable for things like voice chat, VPN connection for working at home, or online gaming. Using a VPN connection and online gaming are high priorities for me from my internet connection, so that eliminated satellite from contention.

Cellular Wireless
Cell phone companies offer data plans for their users who have smart phones (Blackberry, iPhone, Android, etc.). This offers a fairly speedy (348kbps or faster) way to access the internet. Most carriers offer mobile broadband service with the intention that you use it occasionally with your laptop, not as your dedicated home connection. Across providers, the standard seems to be to offer up to 5GB of downloads per month for $60 / month. That may seem like a lot, but it really isn't when it is your dedicated connection for home. You can quickly exhaust that 5GB quota and start paying exorbitant rates per additional kilobyte downloaded. For example, let's say a new product revision is released, and the download is 1GB or more. If there are alternate versions, I could exhaust all 5GB in a single afternoon. The idea of these caps is to prevent folks from hogging the network with P2P applications, swapping movies all day, and to keep usage as intended: occasional use on a mobile device. The net effect for me is that cellular is not an option as a home ISP.

Microwave Wireless
I found microwave wireless service to be the best mix of speeds, price, and availability. There are several service providers that can provide service to our location. With microwave wireless you need line-of-sight to the tower providing the signal. A small antenna is mounted on your home and communicates wirelessly with the main tower. Depending on geography and tree line, these systems can offer service in a 15-30 mile radius around a tower. Prices vary by speed, with it ranging from $35 / month for 512K down, 256 up service to $90 / month for speeds over 1Mbps. There isn't a single dominant player in this market like there is in the national cellular market. The best deals I found were offered by a local company: Hoosier Broadband.

512K/256 $34.95 Residential Service
768K/384 $44.95 Residential Service
1.5M/512 $69.95 Residential Service
512K/256 $54.95 Business Service
768K/384 $64.95 Business Service

The difference between residential service and business service is that Hoosier Broadband reserves the right to lower the priority of residential traffic in deference to their business customers, and business customers are guaranteed support within 24 hours. Residential customers are not. I'm not yet decided on whether I would choose the business or residential service. As the majority of my usage is late at night, I think the residential service should suffice, but given that I also intend to use this service when I need to work from home, the business service might be more prudent. Either way, I would be selecting the 768K service, which is half of what we get now from AT&T. A cut back, yes, but not a terrible one.

Just a quick note on these services: they aren't available. In fact, you probably can't remember the last time (or ever) hearing about ISDN. When I contacted the phone company, they said they are not selling new connections, but only maintaining existing accounts. That's fine, as ISDN has all of the drawbacks of dial-up with a higher cost and only barely better speeds. FiOS would be awesome, but there's no chance of getting that in a rural area as it is too expensive for Verizon to pull new fiber down country roads for a handful of customers. Maybe someday DSL will be an option, but not now.

I think that microwave wireless is one service that we will hear a lot about in the coming years. One of the president's major policy initiatives is to increase access to broadband internet service for rural Americans. Installing a tower for wireless transmission is one of the most cost effective ways to do that, and the FCC is in active talks concerning opening up more of our wireless spectrum for data traffic (this is a major reason why we had the recent switch from analog to digital television over the air). I'm hopeful that these changes will result in more options for me as rural internet consumer, and lower prices.