Millions of Americans Still Crawling With Dial-Up

BY Megan Tady

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In a nation that increasingly demands high-speed Internet access to engage socially, politically and economically, half of the population is being left behind.

Brian Beaudet lives in what’s locally called a “holler” in rural Marshall, N.C. “It’s very secluded but my family likes the privacy and the nature that surrounds us,” he says.

A software developer, Beaudet and his family moved to Marshall because he has the luxury of working wherever there’s a “broadband connection to the outer world.” When they purchased their house on 13 wooded acres, they were assured that it was cable-ready.

But it wasn’t long before Beaudet learned that there was no cable connection, and no possibility that the cable company would build one. His family’s dream house was becoming a nightmare.

Faced with either a crawling dial-up connection or an astronomically expensive and spotty satellite connection, Beaudet opted for the latter, paying $400 to $500 a month to get online. “The cost of living was one of the main benefits why my family decided to have our home in the country,” he says. “We could afford a huge house with 13 acres if it’s in a rural area. But the high cost of Internet connectivity is really making it difficult for a small business like mine to succeed.”

Beaudet told his story to the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit community organization in western North Carolina. While Beaudet’s neighbors may be miles away, he’s not alone in hurting from lack of access to a high-speed connection, and last month MAIN collected 60 testimonies from residents in the area to document the digital divide.

Another testimony, from a couple in their eighties living in Graham County, recounts the difficulty they have keeping in touch with family using dial-up: “This may not seem important to most computer users, but it is to us. We like to see pictures of our grandchildren as they grow. We live in an area where there is no high-speed Internet and it takes forever to download one picture. I may be old and slow, but in this day and age my computer doesn’t need to be.”

But hope is on the horizon of the North Carolina hollers. New technology exists to expand and improve broadband access and wireless communications across the country.

On Nov. 4, the Federal Communications Commission will decide whether to open the vacant public airwaves between TV channels – called “white spaces” – for high-speed Internet access. FCC engineers just completed an exhaustive 18-month study that shows new technology can use white spaces without harming adjacent TV signals.

The agency has indicated its support for opening the airwaves for everyone. But there’s a problem. The public interest has run up against a powerful corporate lobby, which wants to keep the white spaces all to themselves.

The Wrong Side of the Divide

Madison County is stunning, with the Appalachian Trail winding through the wooded hills and the French Broad River wooing paddlers and rafters. It’s an idyllic spot for a bed and breakfast – or so Martha Abraham thought.

Abraham started her business five years ago, forced to build and cultivate her Web presence using dial-up – what she calls a “very painful experience.” When she purchased an online booking system, she found that it was incompatible with dial-up, and so “was reduced to continuing a paper calendar with hash marks.”

She finally got a satellite connection, but has been less than thrilled with the results. “Just writing this e-mail, I was thrown off the Web due to a storm in God knows what county,” she wrote.

Connie Topps faces similar frustrations living in the same county. She works as a freelance nature photographer, but the days of sending publishers actual film-based photos have passed. In a digital world, Topps’ dial-up connection won’t comply, and she often has to drive to the public library to upload and send her photos. “With the increasing cost of gasoline, this is becoming quite burdensome,” she says.

The stories of the detrimental affects of the digital divide don’t stop with Topps, and they certainly extend much farther than North Carolina. Millions of Americans across the country are forced to use antiquated and slow dial-up connections.

In a nation that increasingly demands high-speed Internet access to engage socially, politically and economically, half of the population is being left behind.

Changing the Situation

In the early days of television, the government established empty areas between TV channels to guard against broadcast interference. Over the years, great advances in technology have eliminated the need for these buffers.

New technology also makes broadband Internet service a viable option for this unused spectrum. White spaces could bring universal, affordable high-speed Internet access to millions of Americans now left off the grid.

Nearly every market in the United States has empty broadcast channels. In Juneau, Alaska, for example, as much as 74 percent of the broadcast spectrum could carry wireless Internet services. In the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, where airwaves are considerably more congested, 40 percent of the spectrum could be made available for new Internet and mobile services.

Companies like Motorola, Phillips and Microsoft have developed new wireless technology that protects broadcast channels and other services, such as wireless microphones, from interference. And the FCC has concluded that these devices can be used without harming existing television channels.

Delaying Tactics

Just as Beaudet and his neighbors could be offered some relief, a powerful group representing the nation’s largest media companies – the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) – is trying to keep Americans from gaining access to these airwaves.

Right now, NAB lobbyists are lining the halls of Congress to convince our lawmakers that using white spaces is a bad idea. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they claim white space devices will cause TV interference. And now they’re trying to delay the FCC’s ensuing decision, despite extensive public deliberation at the agency already.

The FCC has investigated white spaces for more than four years and reviewed 29,000 comments from the public. Undaunted, the NAB has upped the ante, hysterically claiming that supporters of opening white spaces are intent on “destroying television.”

As the date for the FCC’s decision on white spaces nears, public interest groups are stepping up their fight to push the agency and Congress to open up the spectrum to unlicensed use.

And in North Carolina, residents are anxiously awaiting their high-speed connections. As one anonymous resident of Madison County laments: “It is unconscionable that in 2008, countless rural Americans still have virtually no access to high-speed Internet.”


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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InTheseTimes.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.

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