Rural Broadband

At ISPCON Fall 2006, the ISP/hosting/VOIP conference where I led a discussion panel on Web 2.0 last week, the tables tables in the dining area each had a sign with a different topic on it, such as “marketing”, “VOIP”, “wireless”, “Web 2.0” and so on. The idea was that you anyone who wanted to talk with people about a specific topic would sit at the table with a sign for that topic.

I got into a conversation with a couple of people at the buffet and in continuing the conversation, ended up at the “finance” table, a topic clearly outside my area of expertise. However, I did end up enjoying chatting with some very interesting guys, a number of whom sported a fine Southern drawl and provided access in rural areas.

“I work outside the footprints of the dinosaurs,” said one of them. “The Verizons, the Comcasts, the what-have-yous, they got your urban areas locked up tighter'n' Fort Knox, an' they ignore the small-town folk, who are still surfin' at 56K and watchin' TV with their rabbit ears. They want the same access you get in the big cities, and I could argue that they might need broadband even more than big city people do.”

He's probably right. After all, living in cities like New York and Toronto like George and I do, we're both a few blocks away from places where we can walk to and pick up some books, a new suit and some khakis, a wide-screen TV, renew our drivers' licenses and engage in hundreds of distractions of the sort that big cities offer. In rural areas where the distance to your neighbor's doorstep could be measured in miles, broadband makes big-city amenities a little more reachable, whether they're vendors, customers, supplies or distractions.

My lunch buddy was in the business of providing access by attaching receivers to customers' external TV antennas; he even talked about getting a better “cherry picker” van for the job. He then pointed to a guy in a cowboy hat, the only such person at the conference. I'd seen him earlier and for some reason had mentally given him the codename “Walker, Telco Ranger”. It turns out I wasn't too far off: he was also in the business of providing rural connectivity and claimed to be laying five miles of fiber every day.

These guys are onto something that the “dinosaurs” have missed. At the Spring ISPCON in Baltimore, someone mentioned that 40% of U.S. ISP customers are still getting online via dial-up; most of these are rural customers in underserved areas. As long as the dinosaurs remain uninterested in their markets — and it seems that it's going to be that way — these guys are going to do quite well for themselves.

So it's with interest that I read this article in the New York Times
With a Dish, Broadband Goes Rural
, which looks at how some rural customers are getting broadband with the help of satellite access providers.

(A little disclosure: one of the companies mentioned in the article in Hughes Network Systems, who are customers of the company for whom I work, Tucows.)