Having fast internet no longer is a luxury, if it ever was.
A year into the Covid crisis, it's clear that access to genuine broadband -- defined by the FCC as at least 25 megabits per second download (25 Mbps) and three megabits per second (3 Mbps) upload -- is a necessity.
Distance learning can't happen without it. Working from home can't happen without it. Keeping in touch with friends and family can't happen without it. Streaming entertainment can't happen without it.
OK, I've exaggerated a bit.
Those things can happen with slower internet. However, I speak from experience when I say that it is much more difficult to do them when you have a 6 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload speed (6/2 in broadband shorthand).
That's what I've had to deal with for many years out here in the "wilds" of rural south Salem, a whole six miles from the city limit of Oregon's capital.
So I have a lot of sympathy for the 157 million people in the United States, almost half the population, who don't have the 25/3 speed that separates genuine broadband from crappy broadband like our DSL that arrives at our house over a copper phone line that is almost fifty years old.
About two weeks ago I was chosen to be a beta tester for the Starlink satellite internet system. It's a project of Elon Musk's Space X company. Starlink is working well for us, by and large.
There are occasional interruptions and marked variation in download/upload speeds.
That's to be expected of a system that is still under development. At the moment I'm writing this blog post with a Starlink speed of 34/7. That download speed is lower than it usually is, but at least it is within the bounds of the 25/3 broadband definition.
My wife and I could afford the $499 Starlink purchase cost, plus $99 for a roof mount.
When testing is over and Space X starts charging the expected $99 a month fee, we'll be happy to dump our CenturyLink DSL and pay about forty dollars a month more for much faster broadband (likely at least 150 Mbps down and 10 up).
However, that's too much for many Americans. Broadband, like health care, shouldn't be available only to those with the ability to pay the full cost of it.
Our country needs to set a goal of making broadband available to everybody within a fairly short period of time, like five years. Hopefully the Biden administration will make this part of a program that modernizes our crumbling/inadequate infrastructure, which includes broadband access.
As noted before, I live six miles from the city limits of Oregon's capital. A few years ago the average download speed in Mongolia was 5.25 Mbps. That's close to the 6 Mbps we've "enjoyed" (not!) from our DSL.
So it isn't an exaggeration to say that in rural south Salem our internet speed is about the same as if we were in Outer Mongolia.
That would be funny if it didn't reflect a huge problem: the unfair gap between broadband have's and have-not's in our country. This is partly due to the high cost of broadband, but in many or most cases it is a question of availability.
Like lots of people who live in a rural area, we have exactly zero choice when it comes to an internet provider. I know, because I've checked out every possibility and come up with nothing other than the crappy DSL we suffered with prior to Starlink coming into our life.
No cable companies out here. No fast cellular internet out here (we don't have a line of sight to a cell tower). No fiber optic out here.
Again, this isn't literally Outer Mongolia, but it might as well be. We're a few miles from Oregon's second largest city. Yet until Starlink came along we were doomed to "broadband" with a speed less than 1/4 as fast as how the FCC defines that term.
I'll end by describing what life is like at 6Mbps for those who have never experienced internet at that speed.
In short, you do a lot of waiting.
Want to read a news story? You click on the link and wait. Want to upload a video to You Tube? You wait a really long time. Want to watch a movie on Netflix? Often it starts, then you wait while the video buffers (a few minutes later this may happen again). Want to download an operating system update? When Big Sur was available for my MacBook Pro, it took 12 hours to download; it failed to install the first time, so then it took another 12 hours to try again.
I'm 72. I'm retired. I'm not working from home or going to school from home.
So even though I'm a writer with three blogs and hate how much time I've wasted because of our slow DSL, I feel even more sorry for those whose job or education is made much more difficult by the lack of fast broadband.
This needs to change. President Biden and Congress, do something about it!