That old dial-up connection may seem like a thing of the past. Sitting at your desktop listening to your landline call your Internet provider in search of a connection while you wait to use your AOL instant messenger. But, for many Americans across the country, this is still very much a reality. Gaining access to reliable, fast, wireless Internet is still a challenge for many rural parts of the United States. In today’s modern world the Internet is more of a utility than a luxury commodity, making Internet access a MUST in order to maintain a standard quality of life.
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The Struggle: Internet for Rural Areas
Getting fast, reliable Internet in rural areas across America remains a challenge. The high cost of installation and maintenance coupled with the small population being serviced make it an unappealing investment for large telecommunication companies. Having the Internet in rural areas is not impossible as there are options currently available. It is just not ideal as most of the options that are sub-par compared to what most urban and suburban areas of America are getting. Many rural areas are still limited to dial-up connections over a 56k modem – the old dial-up connections most of us only recall from the nineties! Additionally, while dial-up Internet relies upon phone lines, many rural areas also have phone lines dating back to the 1960s and 70s, so the connection speed, even on their slow dial-up, is even slower than the intended 56k.
Despite other options, dial-up continues to remain the most commonly used form of the Internet in rural areas merely because it requires no additional infrastructure, cable lines, hubs, or towers. Dial-up is not difficult to install or use: it requires a modem in your home, the modem plugs into your computer and your phone line, and when you want to use the Internet the modem makes a call to your Internet service provider – literally dialing them like a phone call and establishing a connection. Although easy to use, dial-up is not ideal in today’s modern world, and it has some large drawbacks. The first and most important drawback with dial-up is it takes several seconds and sometimes up to a minute or two to establish a connection. While this may not seem that long it is quite different than what the rest of America experiences when accessing the Internet: imagine for a second that each time you opened your phone you had to wait 30 seconds to a minute just to find a signal. The second draw-back to dial-up is slow upload, download, and streaming speeds; it is virtually impossible to stream music, video or transfer large files on a dial-up connection. Additionally, dial-up connections can be terminated by your Internet service provider or phone company at any time and users get charged by the minute rather than a flat connection fee – two other major drawbacks for rural Americans with dial-up as their only option.
The Best Rural Internet Options Today
Luckily, rural America is moving forward and improving conditions for their populations when it comes to Internet access. We’ve already discussed that dial-up is an option to get basic Internet access, but it’s not the only option, so let’s look at what other options are currently available and gaining traction.
- Digital Subscriber Line: If you already have a dial-up connection, chances are you can easily get a Digital Subscriber Line, also known as a DSL connection. Just like dial-up, DSL service sends data using your existing phone lines, but it’s up to ten times faster than dial-up and it allows you to use your phone while connected to the Internet. DSL still has some drawbacks: inconsistent Internet speeds, spotty connections at times, and slow upload speeds, but the reliability and speed of DSL is still miles ahead of dial-up.
- Satellite: If DSL is not an option in your area satellite most likely is. If you can get a satellite dish connected on your home, then you can most likely get satellite Internet! And with satellite technology improving each year, download speeds on satellite Internet have greatly improved. Like DSL, satellite Internet will not tie up your phone lines while you surf the web. However, one of the major drawbacks of satellite Internet is the same drawback as satellite television – the weather may affect your connection.
- Wireless Internet Service Providers: A Wireless Internet Service Provider, also known as WISP, is basically a mobile broadband service that you can use to create Internet service at home. This type of connection is not quite like Wi-Fi because your computer is not always connected by default, but WISP is a fixed wireless option that is popping up in many rural areas. Internet service providers set up large towers and can transmit Internet data using radio signals, servicing an entire community from one large broadcasted wireless signal. WISP generally requires a large piece of equipment somewhere on or near your property and an app that searches for and connects to the WISP. This gives you a little more freedom as you can use your laptop around your property rather than being stuck at a desk on a dial-up wired connection, but even this has its drawbacks. WISP requires equipment installation on your property, the equipment needs a clear line of sight to the tower in order to maintain a strong signal, and stormy weather can interfere with sight lines and the connection in general.
- Cellular/4G: Our cellular coverage nationwide continues to improve by the year, making it easier to surf the web, share photos, shop, stream content, text, email, and call from nearly anywhere in the country. Of course, with this type of service, you must use a Smartphone rather than a desktop computer for your Internet needs, but with today’s technology, there is not much a smartphone can’t do. While seemingly the easiest and best way to get a steady Internet connection, cellular/4G still has its drawbacks: the coverage can be spotty and inconsistent in rural areas, the costs per gig of data can be expensive, and your Internet usage and access is dependent upon the battery life of your phone. Additionally, you can’t sign your laptop or desktop up for cellular data plans.
Using Your Cellphone to Create Wi-Fi
For the past few years, many people have been carrying mobile hotspots around in order to gain Internet access in areas where there wouldn’t normally be any. A mobile hotspot is a wireless type of modem that for a monthly fee will allow you to turn cellular connection into Wi-Fi for your devices. What many people don’t realize is that within most Smartphones is the capability to turn your phone into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, getting rid of the need for a separate hotspot device. To use your phone as a hotspot the device treats its online connection to your Internet service provider’s data connection as if it were a broadband data source. Your phone then transmits this data to nearby devices like a mini Wi-Fi router, giving you a wireless Internet connection to Wi-Fi friendly devices within range.
So why can’t rural America merely use their cellphones to create Wi-Fi? Well, essentially they can, but there are some additional factors to consider. The most important factor to take into account for a mobile hotspot to be successful is cell service – in order for your phone to create a Wi-Fi hotspot it must be connected to your service provider’s network. If you have enough service connection to pull up the Internet on your Smartphone then you have enough connection to create a hotspot using your phone. For many households in rural America they don’t even get steady cell service on their property; you need at least a couple of bars of signal strength to connect your laptop to your mobile hotspot. Another major factor to consider is cost. While most cellular data plans offer unlimited talk-time and texting, this is unlikely with your data plan and most networks limit hotspot access to 10-15GB a month and charge hefty fees for going over your data plans. Therefore, if you have strong cell service at your rural home you can most likely create a little Wi-Fi for yourself with the hotspot feature on your Smartphone, but this is not an everyday solution for regular home Internet access.
An Improving Industry: Rural Internet for All!
Ever since 2016 high-speed Internet has been defined as a utility rather than a luxury. A federal court ruled in a landslide decision that high-speed Internet should be treated like any other utility, such as power and phone lines, paving the way for better oversight of broadband providers and more protections for Internet users. Additionally, this ruling required both Internet service providers and the Federal Communications Commission to take a more active role in getting affordable Internet access to Americans, even in rural areas and low-income households.
Internet options for rural America are already improving and in the upcoming years, we expect this to continue. 5G Internet is expected to make huge strides for broadband in rural areas across the United States. But with options such as DLS, satellite, and fixed wireless plans, there is no reason rural households still need to rely on that old dial-up connection. Contact your Internet service provider and see what options may be available near you, and happy surfing!