Right now, I'm typing this column from a friend's shed. At 1:30 a.m. -- it's 100 degrees inside. There is no bathroom. It smells like oil and gasoline from the lawnmower behind me. Why? Because Internet access in a large part of America is kind of fucked.
When you hear people complain about it -- say, when somebody jokes about how jealous they are of their Korean friend's 50 MB/s connection -- everybody assumes they're complaining about how long it takes to torrent an HD movie or whining about a latency disadvantage in Call of Duty.
But that's not the real problem. First of all, I work on the Internet -- it's my full-time job, my employer's office is 2,000 miles away. And second, there are big chunks of the USA where, if you moved there right now, you can't get broadband Internet access at all, no matter who you offered to blow for it. So for all of you out there who are having to pause periodically so more words will load, let's run down all of the ways that Internet access in the USA is shit.
The reason I'm having to access this article from a makeshift connection in a tool shed is that last month I finally moved out of my old apartment that would have been classified as a war crime if POWs were held there. I got to the new place, called up my friendly ISP to have the connection set up and heard them say that service was unavailable there. Not that particular hour or day -- but unavailable, period. Keep in mind this apartment isn't in the middle of the Sahara, it's located right in the middle of a small town in the USA. Fine, I called another ISP. They said the same thing. This was a problem because it means I could not fucking telecommute to work until a friend finally felt sorry for me and ran a line out to a corner of a building he owns.
The computer is made of beetle droppings.
I'm not an isolated case -- up to 10 percent of the country can't even get basic broadband. That may not sound like a lot if you're among the people who can get it, but in rural areas of the country, there are huge stretches of Internet dead zones (take Nebraska for instance -- the FCC recently reported that more than 300,000 people -- almost 20 percent of the state -- can't get even low-end broadband).
So in my case, I live in a town in the Midwest with about 2,000 people and was told by the area's DSL provider that they are currently "maxed out" on connections -- if I wanted one, I had to wait for some meth-head to go to jail so that his connection frees up and I can take his spot.
He's right there in the weeds, officer! Get him!
It is, of course, about money -- to them, upgrading their capacity isn't worth it if there aren't enough potential non-meth head subscribers to pay for it (here's a tech for one provider citing $750,000 as the cost to add a new terminal to carry additional DSL lines).
It's made out of this.
America has been through all of this before, by the way -- the exact same situation played itself out in the early days of telephone service, when it was too expensive to run a line out to a smattering of customers in some rural farming community (this was back when such communities had only moonshine to entertain themselves, before advances in meth technology rendered it obsolete). Those people didn't get service until the government forced AT& T to do it.
"Now wait a minute," some of you are saying. "Even in a small town like yours, if DSL providers are dropping the ball, the free market should introduce alternatives to compete for all of that money generated by methamphetamine sales."
Hey, sure enough, I got a flier from the cable company offering service. I called and the woman on the phone told me that this service was more of an optimistic hypothetical than an actual "service" you could "buy," but that I should call back every day until it became available. I actually tried that, for 31 days, told each time to try again later while she presumably masturbated at the thought of my pain. The last call I made, another woman said, "It should be very soon because they're physically laying the lines now. I'd call back in a month and a half."
I know, that's what I thought, too!
A motherfucking month and a cockshitting half? "Very soon" doesn't mean what she thinks it means. If it does, I wonder how she'll react when I tell her I'll pay my bill "very soon."
OK, maybe you've seen those ads for satellite Internet (like HughesNet, which specifically advertises their service to places that have lots of corn fields). Even if I was fine with the price and speeds (it's about 400 percent more expensive than DSL, and gets about a third of the speed), when I called I didn't even get that far -- I was informed that they have a 200-meg limit on downloads per day (you can get that boosted to 400 megs for the low, low price of $90 a month). Let me break that down for you: My last Windows security update was 300 megs. That's auto-updating, which means it happens in the background without me noticing.
Their solution? Don't download shit.
"Thanks for your business. You can't eat any of this.
By the way, that's from their announcement page. And on that page, they give us great news! They're currently increasing the cap! By 25 megs. In my job, I'll use that in about 20 minutes. Again, I'm not complaining that this, for instance, eliminates services like Netflix. My work requires me to download dozens of large files (high res images and video) per project, every day, seven days a week. When Brockway talked about bandwidth caps a little while back, it scared the shit out of me. I had no idea how fast I'd run into it.
Just to emphasize that I exhausted every possibility, I found out that DIRECTV and my local electric company both offer a wireless connection called Blue Sky. If you don't have a direct line of sight to their tower (a tree or another house is in the way), you can't get it. OK, a half an hour with a chainsaw later, I had that shit covered. What's the next step?
I mean besides breaking it to the landlord that I didn't cut the tree.
Their representative did some quick figures and said that after installation, equipment and startup fees are all added, I'd be paying about $600 cock-shrinking dollars just to get it going. And that's not counting the $90 per month to use their "just above dialup" speeds, which is not fast enough to stream even a low quality YouTube video. Oh, and it's an 18-month contract -- with no early termination. If I decide their service is too horrible to use a few months later, the $90 bill keeps coming every month until the 18 months are over.
But I only use my situation as an example. I don't want you to think that my message here is, "Don't move to small town America unless you hate the Internet as much as you love meth!" This is a nationwide problem. You'll hear politicians talk about improving broadband infrastructure and if you're happy with your own service, you may not understand what the big deal is.
These guys certainly don't.
Beyond people in my situation, there's just the overall speed of the system as a whole. For instance, if cable Internet had been real rather than a cruel psychological experiment, the fastest speed they offer is 15 megs-per-second. I'd be paying roughly $70 a month for that.
Now compare that to other countries like South Korea, where the average user boasts 15 megs-per-second -- nearly quadruple the speed of the average user in the USA (which I would still kill for, compared to my current 0.0 Mbps download rate). The USA barely ranks in the top 20 in Internet speed worldwide, behind countries like Romania and Iceland.
Don't celebrate, assholes. Your Internet sucks, too.
Oh, and next year, Korea is implementing a 1,000-meg connection. Japan already has one -- for the same $70 per month my cable company charges for their fictional service. Korea claims that theirs won't be anywhere near that expensive.
But don't be discouraged. Chattanooga, Tennessee is working on one themselves. It'll cost around $350 per month.
Oh well, at least they'll probably have it.
As I alluded to before, we still fall into the trap of thinking of the Internet the way we thought about it in 1997 -- as a frivolous luxury used for porn, copyright theft and ALF slash fiction. When the government pushed a plan to help improve lines and accessibility, the opposition across comments sections Internet-wide went nuts, with cries of, "You're fucking with this bullshit in this economy just so people can download their furry porn faster?!"
The only thing I can guess is that this is what happens when you have a debate about technology being held by old politicians who don't completely understand what this "Internet" gadget is. "It's that 'Facebook' thing my secretary is on all day, right?"
But tell that to the people who work for those same politicians, running entire campaigns online. Tell it to the people who used online voting to get their wrinkled asses into the office in the first place.
But if you lose, it casts your vote the other way.
But more than that, online retail is expected to be worth $279 billion by 2015, and as entire industries shift to a world that presumes that everyone has broadband, offline choices will continue to disappear. Every bank has online banking now, and in turn, makes it more of a pain in the ass to do it the old way. With streaming services like Netflix, brick and mortar video stores disappear (in this town, there used to be four movie rental places, now there's one). Hey, did I mention that Netflix is now the largest user of streaming bandwidth in the United States?
That means that in many cases, the choice is between doing the commerce online and not doing it at all. Downloading games off Steam isn't a matter of me being too much of a lazy ass to get down to a Wal-Mart. The vast majority of Steam's library simply isn't available for purchase off the shelf, even if I offer the cashier a suitcase full of cash and 10 grams of top-quality meth to get it. I guess I could just order a physical copy off Amazon ... oh, wait. Right.
Earlier I compared Internet access to the early days of universal phone service, but that's really not even close. Nobody in 1950 was working entirely over the phone. Nobody was doing all of their purchasing, banking and entertainment over the phone. And even then it was still considered a necessity because the powers that be realized that soon, the whole civilized world would operate under the assumption that you had one.
As proof, here's a picture of my current cell phone.
We're so reliant on the Internet now that you don't even realize how much of what goes on behind the scenes depends on it. Last week, I didn't get a chance to grocery shop. The kids were getting hungry, so I rushed up to the store, grabbed a couple of things and pulled out my debit card. When I swiped it, the machine told me to see the cashier, who then told me that their Internet connection was down. Which meant I either had to pay with cash or check, or put all of my shit back on the shelf and serve the kids some loafs of "go fuck yourself."
Eat up, bitches.
And then there are the millions of telecommuters, like me. Let me be clear -- as I mentioned in my article about being poor, having Internet access is the only thing between me and homelessness. In an area of the country where every non-meth industry has stopped hiring, finding a work-from-home job online was what saved me from god knows how long a stretch of unemployment. Moving to a new, more economically viable town costs money I don't have. The Internet was the difference.
For those looking to improve their prospects with a degree, college is often only possible thanks to online courses. My nearest community college is an expensive and time-consuming two-hour round trip away. I could go on and on.
But I won't because I plan on exceeding my bandwidth shortly.
I have a feeling the UN is going to take a lot of shit for declaring that Internet access is a human right. It sounds weird to say when you think of "human right" as "the right to not have electrodes applied to your nuts for attending a protest." But having tried to go without it for a stretch, I can fucking see where they're coming from.
And while I have no interest in getting into a debate about federal funding for new fiber optic lines or whatever, it seems like we've progressed to a point where having Internet is less like phone service and more like having water lines or sewage or roads. It's not so much a thing you buy as the thing that makes it possible to function in society. The sooner the world figures that out, the better.