For billions, it’s an information superhighway delivering data at mind-boggling speeds. But just eight miles outside Spokane, the Internet is more of a potholed road, impassable in bad weather and riddled with dead ends.
“We’ve got nothing,” said Elaine Rising. “I talked to Qwest about broadband service. They said up your nose with a rubber hose.”
Rising runs a coffeehouse/used bookstore/art gallery out of a building the size of a semitrailer in Valleyford. The community is less than 10 miles from Spokane, but the kind of reliable, high-speed phone-cable Internet service urbanites take for granted just doesn’t stretch that far.
And it doesn’t appear headed for those parts any time soon because there aren’t enough customers in rural areas to justify companies’ costs of extending service.
Rural residents, some of whom remember living in the dark for decades while electrified city lights glowed in the distance, say they’re being passed over again for services considered crucial to modern life.
Nearly all can get dial-up modem Internet service, the kind of connection that allows a user to link to the Internet for short periods of time, surf a few Web sites and check e-mail.
But dial-up connections are slow. A simple document exchanged in less than a second on a broadband connection can take hours with dial-up.
That slow pace makes running an Internet-based business from a rural area impossible, though that’s exactly the type of business many people believe can help keep America’s small towns from dying.
Modern medicine and educational opportunities comparable to what city kids enjoy also are dependent on reliable, high-speed Internet service.
A growing number of rural areas also can get wireless high-speed Internet service via satellite or antenna. However, both satellite and antenna have had problems in the country, weather being one.
Wireless Internet service dependent on antenna relies on transmitters positioned in high areas, which can go down in ice and freezing rain. Satellite service can die out during snowstorms or thick cloud cover.
A bigger barrier to wireless service is line of sight. Customers must have a clear path between their Internet antenna and the transmitter serving the area. Trees can be a real killer when it comes to wireless Internet service.
“I have better Internet service, but now I have no tree limbs,” said Shelley Wood of Fairfield.
Wood gets high-speed Internet service through a wireless provider with transmitters on top of Tower Mountain near Spokane and on Tekoa Mountain, located near a rural community of the same name in Whitman County.
Awhile back, her service was clunky, and Wood assumed a branch on her fir tree was the cause. So Wood placed her husband in the bucket of the family tractor to trim the tree until their Internet service improved. When the trimming stopped, all that was left was a tall stump.
“It’s still spotty in most areas,” wireless provider Bill Geibel said of the state of rural broadband.
Geibel’s company, Air-Pipe, is one of the larger local providers of wireless Internet service in Eastern Washington.
It got its start six years ago after a group of radiologists approached Geibel about providing high-speed Internet service to their rural homes. Doctors and radiologists wanted to be able to send their work online from home to the office.
“It was definitely bleeding technology at the time,” Geibel said. “Some of these guys were just in the hills surrounding Lake Coeur d’Alene. Even to get a T1 circuit (a form of ground-delivered broadband) was extremely expensive, about $1,500 a month plus.”
Wireless broadband service is good if there are no obstructions between the transmitter and the customer’s antenna, Geibel said. Ice buildup in bad weather conditions is an infrequent problem, he said.
For home use, wireless works well. What would be best for rural Washington, Geibel said, is if smaller companies could piggyback on rural telephone lines and provide ground-based service.
Such piggybacking was possible in the 1990s, when large telecoms were required to share their infrastructure. But changes in federal law put an end to the practice a few years ago.
Whether they get service by air or by ground, small towns with high-speed Internet service have a much better future than those that don’t.
Without wireless Internet, Robyn Doloughan’s Freeman-based business, Columbia Basin Knot Co., wouldn’t exist. The business sells rope and rope products worldwide, and it has some fairly large customers, including the federal government. Rarely does it sell over-the-counter.
“Probably like 99 percent of our business is done on the Internet. We can’t have a glitch,” Doloughan said. “We have government contracts. We’re also probably the second- or third-leading halter manufacturer for horse trainers in the nation.”
Doloughan relies on two wireless companies, Air-Pipe and Ptera Wireless, for service to make sure there’s a backup if one goes down.
Having two service providers for purposes of staying online no matter what is known as “redundancy.” It’s considered essential for Internet-based businesses.
Redundancy also is something businesses want that a lot of rural communities don’t have even if they have some form of high-speed Internet service.
Two wireless companies work most of the time, Doloughan said, but it’s not fail-safe. She says she would take a land-line connection in a heartbeat.
“The week that Air-Pipe went down for a week and Ptera went down, we had to go to town and work from our laptops,” she said.
Redundancy helped Colville land Washington Dental as a corporate resident a few years ago. The company is the largest provider of dental benefits in the state.
Colville achieved redundancy with the help of Washington State University Cooperative Extension Service’s Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, based in Spokane.
“We helped them with the site selection. In 2001 when Washington Dental opened in Colville, they had a staff of 14; now there are over 100 people working there,” said Monica Babine, co-director of the Bridge the Digital Divide program.
Babine’s office is working with Ritzville to jump-start online business. Her group also is working with five communities in the Pend Oreille-Newport area to determine what can be done to spark Internet commerce there.
When it comes to Internet service, critical mass is what it’s all about, Babine said.
The best thing a rural community can do to secure crucial service is create a demand for it by getting as many people as possible using what’s available.
The old adage that grass won’t grow on a busy street is true even on the most remote off-ramps of the information superhighway.