We hear the catch phrase often enough in political speeches and newspaper editorials. For those of us living along one and two-lane roads it is a daily reality. Many of us own computers, cell phones and other electronic devices and consider ourselves plugged in, at least to some degree. And yet, we remain in that minority group whose access and opportunities are limited by spotty cell tower coverage and lack of available broadband, high speed internet.
When I worked in the city, access wasn’t too much of an issue. My cell phone worked fine during the day and on the drives to and from work when I was traveling the interstate. Turn east on Route 33, however, and the coverage dropped dramatically. At the top of Mount Olive Hill it was commonplace to see people pulled off the road and talking on their phones because that was the last place it would work until they reached Interstate 79, some 70 miles away.
Cell coverage has improved, thankfully. While much of Route 33 remains “dark” there are pockets of access in Spencer and Glenville. At my home, coverage is almost good—almost, but not quite. There are times when I can use my phone in my house but more often than not I have to take it out on the porch and stand in the area we call “the phone booth” to assure an uninterrupted conversation. This is inconvenient, surely, but not something I will call congressmen about.
The internet is another story. For rural folks, the choices are three: don’t have it, have dial-up and constant frustration, or have satellite and intermittent frustration. If we choose satellite, we will pay twice as much as our friends with broadband and have less speed and limited bandwidth. We will also have more outages because of weather and equipment issues. We won’t be able to stream video, download music, use Skype or do a myriad of other things that our friends take for granted. And remember, we’re paying twice as much for the opportunity not to be able to do those things.
Video, Skype and such things are just entertainment some might argue, and that’s true to a point. Some of us need to download music because we work with it as performers. Some need to use Skype because they can’t afford long distance calls to relatives overseas. Some need to upload videos as advertisements for their services.
And then there are the missed employment opportunities. There are many work-at-home jobs available—to those with high speed internet. Amazon hires people in our state to provide customer service to callers, for example. There are company who hire people for tech support, for video surveillance, as online tutors and more. These jobs are desperately needed in rural areas where commuting is expensive or impractical. If our politicians really had an interest in providing jobs, they’d be working hard to get broadband to the areas where the votes are sparse but the need is greatest. Those of us who sell goods online struggle with slow upload speeds ; we are resigned to having to spend far more time than the more fortunate high-speed customers to do the same tasks.
We are blessed to live in homes that are out of the mainstream and surrounded by such beauty as others can only dream of. We pay a price for our privacy and peace, however. We pay more for many services and for the cost of traveling out of our remote homes to shop and work. We are also paying the hidden cost of falling behind the rest of the world because we cannot compete in an online all the time economy.
In years past, it was lack of good roads that impeded progress and growth in Appalachia. Now the same terrain that hindered physical access is impeding electronic access, and we are being left behind once again.