Technology for Rural Areas: Evaluating Internet Connections

The Phelps Chamber of Commerce strives to provide education and resources to our business members with the goal of ensuring a sustainable, thriving economy through the success of local businesses. With this purpose in mind, we have put together a series of articles to explain broadband internet, the differences in internet connections, and how broadband can affect small businesses.

In the previous article, Technology for Rural Areas: What is Broadband?, we explore the definition of broadband and the differences in connection speeds. The biggest factor of speed is the type of connection. Not all internet providers are equal when it comes to speed or capabilities. The following is a summary of the different kinds of connections, with advantages and disadvantages of each.

Dial-Up Connections

Dial-up internet is the slowest and most cumbersome of connections. It typically offers 56 Kbps (kilobits per second), which equals only .06 Mbps (Megabit per second). With a national broadband goal of 4 Mbps, dial-up is quickly becoming archaic. This connection does not allow for many uses –simply checking basic email is about the extent. Besides tying up the phone line, dial-up does not allow for multiple devices to be online simultaneously.

However, in rural areas, dial-up is often the only internet solution available. Because it operates through existing telephone lines, it requires no additional installation and very little equipment. This gives basically anyone anywhere an internet connection.

Satellite Internet

Because the connections are provided by satellites linking your receiver (often located on the roof of the building) to the provider, this option can service remote areas. The speed capabilities are significantly higher than dial-up, with companies like Hughes Net advertising basic service at 1 Mbps download speed and extended plans with 2 Mbps. The actual speed you will receive will be cut in half during prime use times, like early evenings. Also, weather can slow or completely stop your service.

Satellite internet is also one of the most expensive options. Plans can start around $80.00 per month for the basic packages, with a significant start-up cost for the necessary equipment. And beware the limits on data usage.  If you stream movies through Netflix or for online gaming, you can quickly exceed your monthly limit, leaving you with either no service or an inflated bill.

DSL Connections

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) uses existing copper lines to provide service. DSL providers advertise download speeds of around 3 Mbps, which is not affected by how many users are online.  It does provide an ‘always on’ connection, but the speed is based on the distance to the nearest exchange and the quality of the telephone wire. DSL is about half the cost of satellite internet, and is a good option where available.

Cable Internet

Cable providers, like Charter, use coaxial lines to deliver your connection. This ‘always on’ connection is considerably faster than DSL or satellite with providers like Charter advertising speeds of up to 30 Mbps, but actual speeds can vary greatly. It is usually about four times faster than DSL. Because many users already have cable lines running to their homes, the start-up and equipment costs can be low. And because providers usually offer bundle packages with your TV and phone service, it can be affordable option. Although cable internet is a great choice, it is not available everywhere – especially true for rural areas like Phelps.

Fiber Optic Connections

Fiber optic technology offers high speed through the use of glass fibers converting electrical signals to light pulses. This is the least likely option for rural areas because the installation is very expensive. However, there is a lower cost of maintenance after it is installed and it allows for higher speeds at greater distances. Typical fiber speeds can exceed 30 Mbps.

Wireless Broadband

Fixed wireless connections, like SonicNet, use radio signals and transmission towers as opposed to cable or telephone lines. Unlike mobile wireless (cellular) or satellite internet, SonicNet does not have data limits or overage charges. And because the connection is “fixed” the speeds are significantly more consistent than mobile wireless speeds. If a customer gets 3.0 Mbps service, they should expect speeds to be consistently close to that number. Speeds offered by fixed wireless providers can vary from 1 to 10 Mbps, and can be affected by the distance from the nearest tower as well as by how many users are online. The cost is similar to a cellular internet connection, but does not allow roaming like mobile broadband.

Mobile broadband utilizes towers and radio waves to send data. Service providers, like Verizon or T-Mobile, allow customers to add these plans to their monthly cell phone bills. It allows access wherever you are, as long as there is tower service nearby. This can be a good option for rural areas where cell phone service is present, although it is more expensive than fixed line connections like DSL or cable.

In Summary –

Although there are many types of internet connections, not all of them are accessible or practical for rural areas. Dial-up and satellite are the most available but they do not provide the speeds, data usage, or price points that consumers need. Before making a decision on a provider, research the type of connection, the advertised speeds versus the actual speed, and any data limits. Evaluate how fast of a connection your home or business needs – typically the more users and more ways you will use your connection, the higher the speed you need.

To learn more about broadband services, check out these great resources:

–          Wikipedia’s Internet Access Definition

–          LinkWisconsin’s website

–          University of Wisconsin-Extension, Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center

–          National Broadband Plan

Follow the Phelps Chamber Blog to learn how Broadband Affects Businesses in Rural Areas

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