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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Communications at Dunrovin Station

The internet is a telephone system that's gotten uppity. -- Clifford Stoll

What's a modern nerd to do without modern telecommunications?  Never mind that; what's a 21st Century American to do without being able to (if I may paraphrase AT&T), reach out and touch everyone?

The telecommunications systems that we've come to expect rely on substantial infrastructure.  Unsurprisingly, this infrastructure is more readily found where there are people:  the cities and the suburbs.  When we decided to move into the countryside, we knew that we'd be leaving much of that infrastructure behind us.  Some people might consider that to be a good thing.  As for us, we neither desire to unplug, nor do we have the luxury to do so.  So before we made an offer on our new home, I researched what would be available to make sure that it would fit our needs.

Electricity and telephone are the
only hardline utilities available
Naturally, the services of our youth are available.  The US Postal Service delivers our snailmail, and thanks to the universal service mandate in the 1934 Communications Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act we have good old-fashioned landline telephone service.  Television?  Over-the-air TV signals still exist, but for people who need a few hundred channels there's satellite TV.  The Cable companies have yielded the rural markets, and this isn't too surprising -- without a subsidy similar to that afforded to the telephone companies (as part of the universal service program) the return on investment of laying the cable probably doesn't even reach parity.  We looked at two satellite companies, and the deciding factor wasn't cost or channel lineup but rather how they treated me on the phone when I called to learn about their service -- one answered my questions and the other kept trying to steer the conversation into a sale.
Having the TV dish at ground level
makes it easy to remove snow.
And, of course, there's ham radio, but while it's great fun for recreation and is remarkably reliable (which is why it's part of almost every emergency management agency's disaster recovery plan), it's a separate system from consumer telecommunications.

The face of consumer telecommunications has changed remarkably in the last twenty years, most of which has happened in the last ten, but a lot of it requires infrastructure that, understandably, is concentrated in population centers.  (I've already mentioned satellite TV.)  Cellular telephone service is a bit sketchy.  The coverage map for the cell carrier that we're on contract with shows that we're on the edge of "fair coverage" and "signal strength varies" for voice and "3G" and "off-network roaming" for data.  You'd think that with the popularity of the nearby Branched Oak Lake State Recreation Area, the cell carriers would want to provide good, strong 4G signals in our area (*cough cough*). (I love it when I send a text message up here and it tells me I am roaming - Internationally! Where's my passport?  Last time I checked, there was no border control between the kitchen and the living room.~Caryl)

For "landline" telephone service, we've elected to forego the traditional twisted-pair landline and use a VoIP (voice over IP) service; that is, one of the many companies that provides telephone service through the internet.  Why?  Cost, plain and simple.  Even after our first-year discount ends, the VoIP service is half the cost of the traditional phone company's service.  The downside is that it depends on our internet service being up, but I have battery backup for our electronics and I'm pretty confident that the physical link isn't going to be threatened by a falling tree or a wayward backhoe.

So what about that internet?  The options are limited when you leave Suburbia.  According to this map, we're among the unfortunate Americans who don't have access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband (full story here).  25 Mbps downlink, 3 Mbps uplink?  Wow, I remembered when I dreamt of having my very own T1 line -- we're talking wall-to-wall 64 kbps, baby!  Anyhoo... a "cable modem" isn't an option -- see the earlier comments about no cable service.  A "MiFi"-like device that provides internet through the cell company?  See the earlier comments about cell coverage.  DSL is available, at 768 kbps/128 kbps.  Yeah, I considered that fast, back in 2001.  There is satellite internet at 15 Mbps downlink (unspecified uplink datarate), but a radio signal requires .12 seconds to travel between the Earth's surface and a satellite in geostationary orbit.  House to satellite, satellite to ground station, then response from ground station to satellite and satellite to house -- that's a half-second of latency before we add switching and server latency.  The Boy's online school requires the occasional videoteleconference, and latency is a pain in the neck for real-time conversations; enough latency, and it's nearly impossible to hold a conversation.  Fortunately, there's another solution -- a Wireless ISP ("WISP").  WISPs place a microwave dish on your house, pointed at one of their hubs at nearby tall locations (such as water towers), to deliver internet service.  We got a 12 Mbps/1 Mbps package from a local company with good reviews.  They particularly impressed me when I called to get some basic information and the guy who answered was able to get into geeky details.  That might not be important to some people, but it gives me the reassurance that if I ever call with a problem, I'll quickly be able to talk with someone who understands the technology and won't have to climb the tech support tiers.  As it turned out, I'd spoken with the owner of the company after he'd returned from performing some maintenance on one of their hubs -- yup, there are certain advantages to working with small businesses.
In a former life, our internet dish was the
main deflector on the starship Enterprise.
Sure, we don't have the hard-wired infrastructure that we used to have.  As it turns out, we didn't need it as long as we managed our expectations.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are coping admirably with your remote location Caryl. Thanks for the techie info.

    ReplyDelete