I’m not much of a ranter. Most of the time, I try to temper my temper with a cooling bath of pragmatism. And in general, I find this is a valuable way to approach most issues. Keep the emotions on the sidelines; skip straight to the facts. But there is one topic that’s been nagging me for the past year that I can no longer push beneath the surface: The infuriating pitifulness of my local Internet service provider.
I spent most of my adult life in the vast interconnected jungle that is New York City. For Internet and television service, however, my neighborhood in Queens had but one provider: Time Warner Cable. Like most anyone, I had my list of complaints about the company: unnecessary fees, ridiculous charges for installation, absurd wait times for service problems, and on, and on. But at the end of this string of annoyances, I received quality service, a fast connection, and nothing too much to complain about.
Then I moved from the city to the country. And that’s when I realized just how good I had it.
I now live in Upstate New York, about two hours north of the Big Apple. The “town” I live in – if you can call it something so grandiose – has, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, a whopping 800 residents. My closest neighbor is a barn full of tractors. In other words, I live in the middle of nowhere.
Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that I had but one choice for Internet service: A local ISP that, for the sake of my own privacy, I will call “Crap-Tel.” It was here that I learned the plight of the millions of Americans who live outside the trustworthy realm of Big Cable.
The first problem came not with the Internet service, but with the home phone service. As in, they required that I get it. Crap-Tel does not offer any cable TV or Internet service that does not also come with a $40-per-month home phone connection. It is required. Not only that, but the service is terrible – no long distance option, which means calling family in NYC would only add more cost on top of the $40 a month I don’t want to spend.
“Why would you make me get a phone I do not want?” I asked the Crap-Tel agent.
“Well, honey, that’s just how we do things ’round here,” she said. “Plus, how else would you call 911?”
I didn’t bother to explain that people nowadays have a little thing called a cell phone, and that it, too, could call 911.
Then came the bad news about cable TV: Crap-Tel does not provide cable TV service to my house. People who live down the road from me, a mile in either direction, they can have cable service. Me, not so much. Why Crap-Tel didn’t decide to run a cable wire when they ran Internet to my particular plot of earth, I cannot begin to imagine. Oh well. Netflix it would be.
The final straw came when the Crap-Tel agent told me that not only does the company not provide fiber Internet service to my area (as it does for other parts of town), but the maximum connection speed I could get was 6 megabits per second – roughly half the speed I enjoyed in Queens, and below the embarrassingly low U.S. national average speed of 6.7Mbps. Oh, and I’d have to fork over an extra $30 per month to kick up my connection from 3Mbps to 6Mbps – a speed that, based on my regular tests, I have not once reached. Instead, my connection flutters around 2.8Mbps. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
If I could do my job without Internet, I might have given up from the start, told ol’ Crap-Tel to take its small-town monopoly and shove it. Alas, that was not an option. So I suck it up, and pay my monthly bill of more than $100 for slow Internet and a phone I do not use.
The only thing that keeps me from feeling too sorry for myself is that roughly a third of Americans have it worse than I do. According to the Federal Communications Commission, roughly 100 million Americans do not yet have access to a broadband Internet connection. Of those, 19 million can’t get online from home at all. In fact, nearly 4,500 people in my county alone still lack access to an Internet connection.
This is not just an issue of convenience, or a tale of mild frustration. Access to quality Internet is a vital component of our 21st century economy. According to the FCC, the Internet accounts for 15 percent of GDP growth. And even a 7 percent increase in broadband penetration in the U.S. could create as many as 2.4 million new jobs.
Furthermore, Hurricane Sandy proved that a solid Internet connection is now a vital utility, especially during a natural disaster: The Web is the only way to really know what’s happening around you, and what dangers are headed your way.
So as we edge closer to Thanksgiving, I urge those of you who enjoy access to a big-name ISP to remember how good you have it. Sure, your ISP might leave you waiting for the repairman to show up for hours, or send you through an endless loop of automated recordings when you call customer service. But that’s far better than the next-to-nothing you will find just outside the city limits.
Have your own ISP horror story? Let it all out in the comments.