Rural Internet comes up short

Published 8:52 pm Saturday, December 12, 2015

A man in rural Nepal recently brought Internet to 60,000 of his neighbors.

“Fed up with the fact that he had to hike for two days whenever he wanted to check his email, he decided to connect his home town of Nangi to the Internet,” tech website Gizmodo reported. And he was successful.

I wonder if he’s available to help out rural Lincoln County?

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It’s hard to imagine anyone living in America without access to high-speed Internet. But count me among that group — and my neighbors I presume.

I’ve had access to at least highish-speed Internet since college, and it’s one of those things you take for granted until you lose it.

I remember life before the Internet, and unfortunately, my children will as well.

Back in the 90s, my family was the first on our street to have dial-up Internet. Of course, there was nothing to do online back then. I had an email address, but no one else I knew did. So we experimented with things like eBay and Napster. That was about it.

When high-speed Internet came along I thought my dial-up days were over. Nope.

When we moved to rural Lincoln County earlier this year, one of my first tasks was getting the Internet up and running. I work from home at times, my children complete some schoolwork online, my wife shops online, we streamed our favorite TV shows online, our “smart” thermostat was connected — you get the idea. The Internet was a central part of our lives.

But I quickly found out there was no Internet in my neck of the woods, unless dial-up still counts. I decided it didn’t.

And satellite Internet was a no-go since the bulk of data that comes with the various packages must be used between midnight and 6 a.m. We’re asleep between midnight and 6 a.m., and thus have no use for the Internet at those hours.

So we settled on the next best thing, a wifi hotspot from Verizon. But for that to work, a strong Verizon signal is necessary. And, of course, we don’t have a strong Verizon signal.

And we quickly discovered if you leave the wifi device on 24/7, you will burn through a month’s worth of data in a hurry.  So we said goodbye to Netflix and Hulu. We said goodbye to FaceTime. We said goodbye to streaming music. We said goodbye to all those educational apps the kids love.

In some ways, we are living my 90s childhood — at least in regard to Internet. Using the Internet is now a treat, reserved for only special occasions. The children ask with sad eyes, “Can we turn on the Internet now.”

“Sure, but you only get 5 minutes,” is the usual response. Or we tell them “no” because we’ve almost run out of data — and there’s three weeks left in the month.

And often when we do connect, websites won’t load or emails won’t send. Though a lack of fast Internet seems only a minor inconvenience, it has real implications.

There are things I simply can’t do without high-speed Internet. I can’t share files from home with my employees at the office. I can’t collaborate on some projects because my connection is too slow.

My children, who are homeschooled, can’t access the limitless educational resources available online. My wife can’t video-chat with her family back in Texas. And online shopping is usually a non-starter.

The innovators and business leaders of tomorrow are today’s connected children. But what about those who aren’t connected? They will be at a real disadvantage later in the life.

I’m guessing there are thousands of Mississippi families just like mine who can’t enjoy the benefits of being connected. Some businesses also struggle without access to high-speed Internet.

There are efforts to get everyone connected. A White House initiative called BroadbandUSA gave the state more than $7 million to create the Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition.  Gov. Phil Bryant has also announced that $15 million of the state’s compensation from the 2010 BP oil spill will go toward expanding broadband infrastructure along the Coast.

Those are worthy efforts, but they won’t do much for rural Lincoln County. If nothing changes soon, I may be emailing the Nepalese fellow to ask for help — if I can get an email to go through.

Luke Horton is the publisher of The Daily Leader.