[Vision2020] For Idaho and the Internet, Life in the Slow Lane

Saundra Lund v2020 at ssl1.fastmail.fm
Wed Sep 14 11:39:16 PDT 2011



For Idaho and the Internet, Life in the Slow Lane



Published: September 13, 2011


POTLATCH, Idaho - Barry Ramsay, who owns a small manufacturing company here
between two mountains, remembers the day his Internet connection crashed for
several hours. Work crews had to ride up in snowmobiles to discover the


"They said that bears had been rubbing against the towers," Mr. Ramsay said.
In this mountainous state, where some connections depend on line of sight,
even snow and fog can disrupt the signals. "These are the kind of problems
you probably don't have in an urban area," he said. 

And, according to a new study, they are among the problems that have earned
Idaho an unfortunate distinction: it had the slowest Internet speeds in the
country earlier this year for residential customers who were downloading
things like games - a "dismal" average of 318 kilobytes per second. 

Translation: In Idaho, it would take you 9.42 seconds to download a standard
music file compared with 3.36 seconds in Rhode Island, the state with the
fastest average speeds, at 894 kilobytes per second. 

The slowest city, by the way, was also in Idaho: In Pocatello, it would take
nearly 12 seconds to download that music file, according to the study by
Pando Networks, a company that helps consumers accelerate downloads. In the
nation's fastest city, Andover, Mass., a Boston suburb, it would take just
over one second. 

Such speed distinctions might seem insignificant. But with larger files,
downloading delays of just a few seconds can stretch into crucial minutes or
hours and over time result in losses across many aspects of life, some
experts say, beyond entertainment and games, affecting fields such as public
safety, education and economic growth. It is not clear how many households
throughout this state still have no Internet, but nationally, the figure is
28 percent - most of them in rural areas. 

The United States as a whole lags in speed, coming in 25th behind South
Korea, which has the fastest speeds in the world. Even Romania clocks in

"This is about our overall competitiveness," said Jonathan Adelstein, the
administrator of the federal government's Rural Utilities Service and a
major advocate of broadband. "Without broadband, especially in rural areas,
kids might not reach their full potential. And we can't expect to be
competitive in a global economy." 

More than 11 federally funded projects are under way in Idaho, at a cost of
$25 million, to establish high-speed broadband. 

Yet this sparsely populated, mountainous state still lags in residential
speeds, and the Pando study is only the most recent indicator. The federal
government's National Broadband Map put Idaho at 47th for download speeds of
three megabits or greater. But the Pando study stung the collective psyche
of officials here. 

"The last thing I need is a report that says we don't have the capacity and
speed, when I know it exists," said Gynii A. Gilliam, executive director for
the Bannock Development Corporation, a nonprofit group working for economic
growth in the Pocatello area. She noted that Allstate Insurance was opening
a $22 million call center in Pocatello and that the Federal Bureau of
Investigation has a service center there. "We have not lost any business
because of Internet speeds," she said. 

Indeed, speeds for Idaho's businesses can be as fast as those anywhere, if
customers pay for it. The federal government says Idaho is among the states
with the greatest disparity in speeds available in urban areas versus rural

Even Ms. Gilliam acknowledged that her home service was sluggish. 

"It feels like it's moving in slow motion," she said. "A lot of times I'll
start downloads and not complete them." She said she was happy as long as
she could get e-mail. 

But others are concerned. 

"We have not been participating in the telecommunications revolution,"
lamented State Representative John Rusche, a retired pediatrician, a former
health insurance executive and the Democratic leader in the State House. As
someone concerned about electronic medical records, he has been pushing for
better Internet service for years. 

The Pando study examined 4 million actual download speeds of Pando-supported
products - games, antivirus software and television shows - by residential
customers across the country from January to June. 

The study found the fastest residential Internet speeds in New England and
the mid-Atlantic states and the slowest in the mountain west. 

Idaho encapsulates some of the challenges for mountain states. Home to the
Bitterroot Range of the Rockies, the state is crisscrossed by a series of
peaks, ridges, forests, high plateaus and river valleys, making it expensive
to lay cable or build towers. 

"We have a guy here who was dropped into remote, isolated areas of Iraq to
set up their telecommunications systems," said Christine L. Frei, director
of the Clearwater Economic Development Association in Lewiston. "He told me,
'We had better communications in Iraq than you have in central Idaho.' " 

Idaho is also sparsely populated, with an average of 19 people per square
mile. (Rhode Island, by comparison, has more than 1,018 people per square
mile.) Providers have little financial incentive to build a whole
infrastructure across rugged terrain just to reach one or two homes. 

"We're in business to make a profit," said Jim Schmit, vice president and
general manager in Idaho for CenturyLink, formerly Qwest and now the state's
largest Internet service provider. Still, Mr. Schmit said that 92 percent of
CenturyLink customers here had "access" to broadband, though he declined to
say how many of those who could subscribe actually did so. 

Bibiana Nertney, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Commerce, said
residential customers often could not afford broadband. 

"It's not the lack of availability," she said. "It's the lack of demand and
what people are willing to pay. It goes to Idaho's philosophy and mentality
that we don't spend more than we need." 

While grants and loans are available to build out the Internet
infrastructure, Kerrie Hurd, the broadband liaison for the federal
Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development in Idaho, said the
grant requirements could be onerous. 

"Not a lot of communities are willing to put in the application and find the
broadband provider, especially when taxpayers want money to spend on an
essential service, like fixing the streets and updating the sewer system,"
she said. 

A bright spot is the Idaho Education Network, which provides high-speed
broadband to all high schools in the state and allows residents and business
owners to use the service at the schools. Unfortunately, because of cuts to
school funding, some schools are open fewer hours. 

To address the cost issue, Mr. Schmit of CenturyLink said that starting next
month, the company would offer broadband services at a discount to
low-income customers. 

But some say more needs to be done. 

"I don't think enough people understand just how bad the situation is," said
Susan Crawford, who focused on broadband issues for President Obama early in
his administration. "It really is time for this country to invest in getting
its citizens online where we don't have Internet access, especially in rural
areas, so we stop sending jobs to India that we could be sending to Idaho." 

John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York.


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://mailman.fsr.com/pipermail/vision2020/attachments/20110914/9228bed0/attachment-0001.html>

More information about the Vision2020 mailing list