Education, Plain Speaking, Rural Living, Technology

Can You Hear Me Now Yet?

File:Reis' telephone.png“Can you hear me now?” was the tag line in a series of Verizon commercials from the early 2000s, touting its nationwide coverage, and the fact that folks from all parts of the country were more likely to be able to “hear” each other via cellphone if they were Verizon  subscribers, because of the company’s highly touted nationwide network.

As such things do, it became a popular catchphrase in other contexts, and something of an early meme.

The following post appeared on Ricochet in April of 2012.  Every word of it is still true today, and nothing has changed.  A short (well, not all that short; this is me, after all) update follows the post:

Longer ago than I care to remember, when I was a college undergraduate and my brother and sister were, respectively, in grade school and high school in a suburb of Pittsburgh, the most popular AM morning radio show belonged to one Jack Bogut.
Oh, there were other options on the dial.  The younger, more hip, audiences might have listened to the team of Larry O’Brien and John Garry on WTAE.  Their youth and irreverence made them seem a little dangerous—would they go too far one day and get booted off the air?  As far as I know, they never did.

Update, 2021: Well, it’s almost a decade later, and here I still am.  Nothing has really changed.  There’s still no DSL or cable service out here.   Four years ago, Verizon ran a fiber cable from Washington, PA to my local “Central Office” (a laughable and extravagant description of a tiny, hole-in-the-wall, antiquated facility that isn’t staffed, most of the time).  That thick, ugly, fiber cable runs past the end of my driveway, not 100′ from my house.  But I can’t tie into it.  It’s for “company use” only.  I’m on my second satellite provider.  The first one (WildBlue, which became ViaSat at some point), delivered appalling service and was, at about $100/month, even more expensive than the current one (Hughes), whose service isn’t much better, but which is about $20 cheaper. There’s a monthly cap (20GB), although they’re quick to tell you that usage between 2AM and 8AM every day doesn’t count against that.  But if you go over that monthly cap, the service “slows” to approximately dial-up speed.

I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s quip when she was told that Calvin Coolidge had died:

“How could they tell?”

I can’t tell the difference when they “reduce” my speed, because it’s painfully slow all the time.  So slow that even low-quality YouTube videos won’t play without interrupting themselves.  For that reason alone (never mind the 20GB cap), forget about streaming anything.

Any sort of video-chatting (Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, etc) is completely out of the question, both because of the general slowness and the discrepancy at which data uploads (so, my voice and image going “up” to the satellite), and at which data downloads (the other party’s voice and image coming down to my PC).  This imbalance means that even when things are working as well as possible (not all that well), we’re constantly either talking over each other, or enjoying long pauses when we’re not sure if the other person has finished speaking.  Something which so many people take for granted is absolutely useless to me.

My cellular connection (AT&T) is marginally better, but still won’t support video calls, and cuts in and out as I move about the house and property.  For this reason alone, I’m leery of ditching my landline (which is among the most expensive in the country, for the least amount of service).  AT&T is generally accepted as the cellular carrier with the best coverage in this area.  I haven’t tested that theory out for several years, but I may, soon.

There are some natural barriers to excellent broadband access out here, just an hour from Pittsburgh.  One is the terrain, which is hilly and wooded, and which makes any technology requiring line-of-sight communication extremely difficult, and any wired solution that runs either underground or on telephone poles extremely expensive.  Another is low-population density. (I like that aspect of living out here very much)  which makes it uneconomical for the carriers to actually do anything about the situation.  Another is the appalling state of the communications–Wait for it!  Here comes the word of the day!–INFRASTRUCTURE, which, other than the addition of the fiber cable I mentioned which I can’t tie into, hasn’t been upgraded since I moved out here 35 years ago.

I guess I got to thinking about this now, because of a conversation I had with a neighbor who’s erecting a shed for me in a field across the road.  We were discussing the effects of the last year of (mostly) cyber-education on the township’s youth, and he (who has grandchildren in the local system) was telling me about the extreme difficulties many families have had even accessing any of the school-district’s provided services because of what I’ve described above.  No surprise there.

So perhaps I should be over-the-moon with excitement that Joe Biden, “the man with half-a-mind to be President” is promising $100B for “broadband for all.”

Forgive me if I just roll over and go back to sleep.

It’s looking to me as if most of this money will be spent on grants to those with low-incomes who can’t afford the service.  While this is a praiseworthy idea, it assumes that there is something called “the service” in place to begin with.  And while the “expense” barrier is certainly real for many families, I–a person who’s able to afford quite expensive satellite and cellular connection–still have to put up with subpar connectivity that is useless for things like streaming, or video calls–things that have become a part of people’s everyday, expected, routine lives.

Not for me.  And I can afford the best the area has to offer.

This is a problem that won’t get solved until someone or something gets tough with the communications providers and requires them to lay out and implement functional broadband in areas like mine, and in those even more sparsely populated and rural.  Until someone kicks Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and all the rest of them in the nuts, and forces them to comply.

Or until someone like Elon Musk (not a personal favorite, but–speaking of nuts–even a blind squirrel finds one every now and then, so perhaps I can overlook that here) comes up with a better idea and takes the business away from them.

Starlink (yes, it’s another satellite service, but one which at least seems to be trying to solve the speed and latency issues that plague the others) says it should be bringing coverage to the little hamlet of Limited Service sometime late in 2021.

I’m considering it.

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