Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Internet access blues

Whatever happened to all the incentives to get rural and low-income people onto the Net?

As I've chronicled here before, Pat's and my Internet access has been threatened by a battle between our little local ISP and the Big Bad Telecom company, and the Not-So-Big Not-So-Bad Regional Telecom company has also gotten snarled up in the battle, and so have a lot of other little ISPs and telecoms. Now our ISP has been divided up into at least two different divisions (both of whom had been sending us bills, and we thought maybe we had straightened out the situation, but now it seems the wrong one is the one that is getting our money), and that ISP is no longer providing service at Five O'Clock Somewhere.

The problem is compounded by new policies at the community college where I work. Even though the state legislature cut our funding and ordered us to raise tuition in order to make up for the funding cuts, our administration has chosen NOT to raise tuition, reasoning that in periods of financial hardship, the very last thing our students need is a tuition increase. The upshot of that decision is that a whole lot of expenses have to be cut elsewhere.

One of the areas in which we are to cut expenses is paper, and all of the person-hours it takes to handle said paper. No longer will there be paper grade sheets, on which we record students' homework, attendance, and other data. That will all now be on electronic spreadsheets. The burden of keeping records has been shifted to the instructors; the department will no longer maintain file drawers of paper grade sheets, so if a student protests a grade, the instructor's electronic spreadsheet will be requested.

(I consider that system to be flawed, since an instructor could easily alter the spreadsheet before submitting it to the administrator dealing with the protest; it would be much better for the instructor to submit a spreadsheet to be kept on file, just as the paper grade sheets have been kept, routinely at the end of the term. We want to keep the system honest. But that's just a digression from my main point.)

Anyhow, because of these changes in how things are done, I must now keep in contact with the college even when I'm not physically present. I might be able to be out of touch over a weekend, but I shouldn't go longer than two days without checking in. That means no more extended stays at Five O'Clock Somewhere unless I have Internet access.

But, since Pat is currently not working (or at least not working for money – he's been doing some great volunteer work for both the New Mexico and Rio Grande sailing clubs, and some stuff for the sailing folks in Arizona and elsewhere), we can't afford to pay any more for Internet access than we're currently paying, $20 a month (plus taxes) for dialup access.

Here is what we need: Internet access, both in Albuquerque and in northern Rio Arriba County (dialup will do), from a single provider, at a single price of $20 or less.

Here is what we have found: No land-based Internet provider serves both Albuquerque and northern Rio Arriba County. We can keep our existing ISP in Albuquerque for $20 a month, and pay another ISP another $20 a month for service at Five O'Clock Somewhere. We can ditch our land-line in Albuquerque and use our cell-phone provider for high-speed Internet, saving $20 a month on the land-line and $20 a month on what we pay our current ISP but adding $60 a month to the cell-phone bill, and cell signals don't reach Five O'Clock Somewhere, so we'd have to drive to somewhere there was a signal to access the Internet. We can get satellite-based Internet for about $50 a month that would be available anywhere, but right now, $50 a month would be a severe strain on our budget.

Here is what we have not found: Where the money is going that you get charged on your telephone bill that is supposed to subsidize Internet access for rural (e.g. Rio Arriba County) or low-income (e.g. AGI of $16,000) people. Yeah, look at your phone bill, your cell phone bill, your Internet bill … how much are you being charged in taxes that are supposed to be helping people like me and Pat? None of these ISPs make any mention of any way for rural or low-income people to apply for subsidies. We did find one ISP with a great discount for educators in Taos County, but that was just that ISP's special program, and it had nothing to do with the federal system.

An interesting thought … if you would rather not spend your money on these strange fees that you see on your telephone bill, you could send them to Five O'Clock Somewhere instead. I guarantee you that they will actually be used for what they claim to be for, Internet access for rural and low-income people. If some angel were to pay for satellite-based Internet, we would probably erect a shrine.

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Blogger JP said...

Very good points.

In the UK the regulator Ofcom has two remits. One is to support efficient markets, competition etc for consumers. The other is a range of citizen based goals.

These two are separate dimensions, and the legislators made it clear they should remain so. When Ofcom tried to amalgamate the goals into one citizen/consumer mission statement they rightly said that isn't acceptable.

Because to be a citizen in Britain you need to be able to participate, where ever you are and what ever your circumstances. As more and more of our culture is online the issue of universal broadband is a *very* hot topic.

And yet there are all sorts of anti-competitive / cross-subsidisation issues. There's been a recent report in the UK from Lord Carter (ex head of Ofcom) that has proposed a number of possible solutions.

One of which is to extend mobile companies spectrum licence to indefinite in time if they will extend 3G coverage to 99% of the population.

Satellite can easily provide near 100% coverage but are expensive. As there weren't many customers outside terrestrial coverage and they typically were unable to afford satellite fees, many satellite companies went bust (Iridium, ICO, Globalstar, Worldspace). That made investors very, very wary, though there are a number of operators that can provide satellite broadband. In the UK in remote regions such as Scotland Highlands and Islands this is subsidised by the regional development agency, effectively tax payers money, along with travel (CalMac ferries)

But while there should be an objective of universal broadband access the reality is that there are cost and technology reasons why rural areas will likely continue to be less well served than urban ones for years to come

Sat May 16, 03:42:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

What is frustrating to me is that there WAS affordable Internet access at Five O'Clock Somehwere, but it's been removed.

Since having Internet access is now a requirement of my job, it would be nice if my employer were to pay for it, but with the major budget cuts that the state legislature has handed down this year, that's not going to happen.

Meanwhile, yeah, I often feel like I'm in the Scottish Highlands when I'm up there. One of the neighboring ranches even runs a herd of Scottish Longhorn cattle.

Sat May 16, 11:25:00 PM MDT  
Anonymous Jerry said...

What does aol charge these days?

Ugh. now I feel dirty.

Wed May 27, 12:38:00 PM MDT  

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