Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Internet

What does ‘Internet’ mean to you? The answer to that question depends on where you are, and it speaks to another key area of poor understanding when it comes to differences between urban and rural communities in the United States. I’m not just talking about complete lack of Internet access (which is an issue in some places) but about the kind of Internet access people have, and what other people take for granted when it comes to how they engage online.

I’m fortunate, for a rural dweller; I have access to high speed in the form of DSL. It’s not quite as fast as I would like on many days, but it is functional. I can engage with most online content, like streaming video, graphics-heavy websites, and so forth. For many rural people, this is not an option, and the Internet is an extremely frustrating place, because it is increasingly engineered with the assumption that people are on a high speed connection of some form or another. You can’t even get to the page to tell your email to display in HTML only, because your connection craps out on you every time.

Many rural communities have satellite Internet (I know a number of people on the Coast who only have access to satellite, for example, because they’re too far from town). Satellite is often billed and treated, including by regulators, as ‘high speed,’ a concept that makes most satellite users I know snort with laughter. It’s not just that satellite is slow, although it is, it’s that it is also unreliable. Weather conditions can be a big problem. Rural people relying on satellite cannot work online, because their Internet access is not dependable enough to make this a good idea; clients don’t like it when you say ‘it’s snowing so I can’t get on the Internet.’

And satellite users cannot use a lot of feature-heavy websites, which by nature limits their ability to engage online. Want to freeze up a satellite user’s email? Shoot over a picture from your garden party. Or send a link to a YouTube video. Things that many of us take for granted are just not possible on poor quality satellite connections, and it is extremely frustrating to try and complete basic tasks on a satellite connection. When I started working on this series, I went on a little field trip to a friend’s to see how bad satellite is, people, and it’s bad. Really, really bad. I was about ready to throw my laptop out the window after around thirty seconds and I asked her how she dealt with it and she shrugged and said ‘I usually just use the Internet at work[1. By the way, satellite does not come cheap; rates can be upwards of $100/month and you are often locked into a year-long contract.].’

But satellite users have it good, compared to people who can only access Internet through dialup. Who remembers dialup? Yeah. The slowness of satellite starts to seem downright speedy to dealing with the molasses of a dialup connection. All those nifty features on your website that make it so pretty and cool? Yeah. They make people on dialup want to track you down and smash a pie in your face, except that fortunately for you, they can’t load your website and find out where you live. Dialup is nothing short of infuriating to try and use with the bulk of the Internet.

I’ve brought up the issues with rural Internet access when trying to explain why transcripts of images and video are so important, and this issue often gets pooh-pooed because it doesn’t affect that many people. Everyone has high speed! Actually, no they do not. Many people cannot access broadband service because it is not offered in their communities or because the actual upload/download speeds with broadband are so low that you really can’t call it broadband, in all honesty. There are also other significant barriers, like cost; broadband is expensive[1. I use ‘elite’ broadband service that still delivers connection speeds lower than those with basic connections¬†in the City since I need it to work, and you do not want to know how much I pay.].

Last July, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that between 14 and 24 million people in this country lack access to broadband Internet. The cost barrier has been explored in attempts to promote broadband access in this country, with the goal of making affordable broadband available to everyone who wants it, but what is ‘affordable’? People in rural communities are more likely to live in poverty, often below the poverty line, and in those circumstances, ‘affordable’ is a pretty nebulous term. If you have no Internet service at home whatsoever and your budget is stretched to the limit, how are you going to buy ‘affordable’ broadband at, say, $12/month? How about the computer to connect to it?

The lack of access to reliable high speed Internet service in rural communities is caused by a number of factors. There’s the infrastructure issue; it costs more to get us connected and to keep us connected. Severe weather in rural areas can knock out communications for days, sometimes weeks in particularly bad cases. There’s a low return for broadband providers because rural areas lack population density, making it really expensive to extend services to rural areas. That’s compounded by the fact that many people can’t afford Internet and computers at any price, so aren’t even available as potential customers even if companies were extending services to their area.

In the City, you can download an ebook, watch a movie on streaming, and check out a Flickr stream in a flash. That same opportunity isn’t available to a lot of people in rural areas, which has a very real impact. As engagement increasingly moves online and it is assumed that people have high speed access, rural communities are missing out; on jobs, on education, on opportunities for enrichment, on so many things. And this is treated as a problem that’s ‘not that important’ because, after all, not that many people lack access, so who cares?