Saturday, March 22, 2008

ISPs having trouble keeping low-cost wireless available; checking broadband services before household moves


Hopes for providing free or low-cost wireless Internet service in low-income areas seem to be receding as some ISP’s have pulled out, finding it not profitable to stay in. Ian Urbina has a story in the March 22, 2008 New York Times, “Hopes for wireless cities fade as Internet providers pull out,” p A1, link here.

The story relates problems with Earthlink in Philadelphia. Some rural areas may not be able to get coverage. On the other hand, some cities like Minneapolis have innovative solutions to this problem, offering ISPs a threshold amount of business with city offices.

In my own circumstances, my laptop tells me that a wireless connection is available, from Verizon Customer ID. However, this particular service requires an ID and a subscription fee, which varies with the amount of geographical area covered.

In airports, my laptop has varying results. The Columbus, Ohio airport has great coverage, but Baltimore BWI did not the last time I was there. On the road with a car, results vary from one location to the next. Many motels have wireless, which sometimes is not working.

The Real Estate section of the March 22 Washington Post has an article by Gabe Goldberg, “Moving in a Wired World: Tips to get connected quickly in your new home.” The link is here.
The article suggests checking Broadbandreports before moving (a household), or even before agreeing on the purchase of a home / condo or signing a lease to make sure of what will be available. Most apartment buildings and condos have arrangements with existing providers that may preclude other land-wired providers. Wireless may or may not work well in a particular building, or may work in a neighborhood care nearby. The site has a “find service” link by zip code with details as to local ISPs. I've noticed in free apartment digests (common at health spas and in shopping centers) that not all buildings list cable-ready availability. Most larger ISPs have websites from which people can continue receiving email even if they no longer use that ISP as the telecommunications providers, but if one’s email provider does not do this, it is a consideration.

Up to about 2000 or 2001, having broadband was not as critical. In fact, for the first couple of years that it was offered, it was often unreliable, with long outages. Most applications, emails, and even personal publishing facilities worked satisfactorily on 56K modems with dialups on a land phone line (often a second line on the same jack, which was then a popular arrangement). I found I could publish text with WS-FTP or FrontPage satisfactorily by 56K. However, since 2003 or 2004, broadband has become essential because most computers need regular large security updates (from Microsoft, starting with Service Pack 2, and from anti-virus providers like McAfee), in order to remain safe (with firewalls) when connected to the Internet. Furthermore, bandwidth requirements for publishing video and images (as is common on social networking sites and sophisticated blogs) are greater than they were a few years ago when personal publishing was less “social” in nature. ISPs have generally greatly increased bandwidth availability for a given price, but the economics of this now could deteriorate in a declining dollar market and due to other recent market forces, unless there is serious attention to telecommunications policy, which is why “network neutrality” is such a hotly debated and elusive issue.

Still another issue is satellite Internet and DirectTV, which may not work reliably everywhere, and may not be allowed (as on balconies) in some buildings. However, in many locations, DirectTV ("The Dish") offers more channels and shows (like NBC's previous soap "Passions") than do some conventional cable services in many areas. Keeping it working, as during storms, may challenge the handiness of some homeowners.

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