Southern Life
I'm not a communist agitator – I just want what I pay for

It’s a wonder anyone in Kentucky, or the US for that matter, bothers with a satellite internet connection – anyone living more than 10 minutes from a town of any reasonable size, that is. Not only are the available options painfully slow – though the satellite ISPs tout their wares with superlatives such as “blisteringly fast” – they are expensive and many of  the “service providers” (their words, not mine) employ somewhat suspect tactics to keep you in their talons once they have you signed up.

Want to change ISPs? Thinking about changing your satellite TV service but prefer to retain the “independent” ISP that, for convenience sake – now there’s an oxymoron – you had bundled with it? Want honest, factual information about speed, bandwidth allowance or actual costs? Well don’t go to any of the websites. The only phone numbers displayed on the home page I visited recently were those urging me to “sign up now”, to enquire about my bill or ask for help. Nowhere was there a number I could call to make general enquiries about the service or ask what sort of speeds I could reasonably expect and so forth.  And that’s another thing – a search of the websites of both major players in this region failed to find a layman’s explanation of the speed they actually claim, no doubt hoping people will assume they are quoting megabytes, not megabits or hoping that most of their clients won’t know the difference.

Don’t, whatever you do, ask questions of the sales representative (or should that be associate?) on the other end of the “sign up for light-speed fast internet now” line. Do so and you’ll be treated to a barrage of garbled hard-sell patter delivered at a gallop much faster than that claimed for the internet connection the rep is trying to sell you.

For the almost two years I’ve lived in Kentucky, I’ve been a victim of an ISP that once it had me hooked up in a bundle with a purveyor of 200-plus channels of mostly repeat programs (sorry, encore presentations) immediately erased me from its corporate memory. The plan I’d signed up for was sold to me as a mid-range option – though some time over the past six months and without telling me it seems to have become the basic plan – but never once in the time I have endured it has it delivered even half the speed I pay for. For $50 a month I have only once reached a download speed of more than 260 kbs. Their explanation? It’s because I’m bundled with an evil TV service provider that – apparently – restricts the amount of bandwidth it allocates to me. However, if I were to sign a new stand-alone contract with the ISP and pay for a new installation of the latest equipment then my service would miraculously improve – or so they tell me.* It must be a joke, right? Why would any company allow another to tarnish its name by downgrading its service while working in partnership with it?

And that brings me to the question of collusion. The providers of cable, satellite and landline services have apparently borrowed a leaf from the same manual written years ago by the ship-owners’ association. That’s the page where it tells you how to divide your world – in this case the USA – into spheres of influence but still maintain the illusion of competition. It’s horrifying.

I’ve switched my TV provider but so far haven’t canceled my old service, due to the obstacles mentioned here. Appalled by the obstructionist attitudes I was encountering, and the possible damage to his reputation, the small businessman who’d installed my new TV service organized a three-way phone hook-up with my ISP (Company A) to see if we could find a solution. Could I keep my old account and equipment while they sent out an installer with the new gear. No, I’d have to sign a new contract. Well I might as well cancel all together. The ISP rep, all helpful and condescending – why do these people all assume you’re not as smart as they? – said something like “Don’t do that sir; I appreciate your problem and I’ll switch you through to someone who may be able to help.” In a flash we found ourselves talking to a sales rep with another company, one that advertises itself as Company A’s chief and fiercest competitor. I kid you not and I’ll swear to it in court if it comes to that. In response to our incredulous question, Company B’s salesman said: “We are a sister company, sir.”

How did things get to this state and why is the USA so far behind in communications technology (29th in the world and slipping) – especially in that which is available to people who live outside city limits? It’s not that the country is sparsely populated, nor as far as I know is there any resistance to the idea of affordable access to truly high-speed internet for all Americans, regardless of where they live. (Note to ISPs: 1Mbs is not high speed, it is considered slow everywhere except in your advertising. South Korea is already testing a 1Gbs network that will be up and running next year.)

Nor does US internet service come all that cheap. Daily Infographic this year published a statistical map crediting the USA with an average speed of 4.8Mbs at an average cost of $3.33 per Megabit; Japan is shown at 61Mbs and $0.27 per Mb. However, I’d dispute this because my guess is that only major population centers figured in the calculations. My average speed is far less and my cost far more than is quoted for the USA – and I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of people in the same slow and leaking boat. Government surveys indicate that something less than half of all Americans enjoy access to truly high-speed internet service and, of those who do, less than half receive service qualifying as true broadband, despite the ISPs’ claims.

What’s to be done about it? If the government did what is being done in Australia and runs fiber-optic cable wherever wireless doesn’t reach and launch a few satellites better able to handle internet communications, then things might improve. And it’d certainly give the flagging economy a boost. The network could be sold to private interests once it was up and running – with a stipulation that service must be maintained in rural areas – or kept as an income generator for Social Security and Medicare.

Of course this would trigger the usual howls of  “socialism” and the big corporations would argue that they do things better and more efficiently than government. Maybe they can, but they don’t. Service to clients and country comes at best a very poor fourth after executive bonuses, profits and “responsibilities to our shareholders”.

We are ankle deep in the crocodile tears shed by politicians over small business, competition from cheap foreign labor and the plight of the struggling middle-class (forget the poor, they’re always complaining), but part of the remedy is staring them in the face. Not only would a national, hybrid high-speed wireless/fiber-optic/satellite network make rural businesses more competitive, it would do wonders for emergency services, traffic lights, schools and the 1001 other things we now depend on in our increasingly complex world.

But shoot, what do I know? I’m just some grudge-ridden malcontent living way out in the boondocks – all of 20 minutes from the State Capital, 15 minutes from a county seat and 35 from the State’s second-largest city. I probably get what I deserve.

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Frank Povah

Frank Povah

Arriving in the USA in late 2008, Frank Povah moved to Stamping Ground, Kentucky in mid 2009. Passionate about the written and spoken word and constantly bewildered by non-verbs and neo-nouns, Frank trained as a typesetter - though he has worked at many things - and later branched out into proofreading, writing and editing. For many years he has been copy editor, consultant and columnist with a prestigious Australian quarterly along with running his own editorial and typesetting business. His other interests are many and include traditional music, especially that of the south, folklore, natural history, and pigeons.