NEWS ANALYSIS: A trip through the Southeast reveals that the long-promised answer to the need for rural broadband and broadband wireless access really wasn't an answer at all. Vast expanses of the rural South, as in other underpopulated sections of the nation, are bereft of any kind of broadband access despite an investment effort by the Federal Communications Commission.
ABOARD THE SILVER METEOR There's a reason for the vague dateline you see here. In my sleeping quarters on this legendary Amtrak train, as it speeds through the south on the way to Miami, are 3G and 4G devices from every major carrier serving this part of the United States.
The reason I don't know where I am right now is because I can't find out. While all these wireless devices are equipped with GPS and navigation software, when I don't have Internet access, I can't retrieve maps, and as a result, I can't find my location. And that's a problem.
While many devices will let you download maps to your phone if you know you'll be traveling outside their company's coverage area, that's not really the issue here. If I want to navigate, I have a dedicated GPS device. But if I want data, I should be able to reach the Internet, and I can't.
What I'm finding is that in spite of the promises by the big wireless companies that they cover virtually all the U.S. population, those promises are actually specious. That the carriers can even make the claim that they cover nearly all the United States must be because they focus on big cities.
If you look at the land area, both on their coverage maps and in the real world, you find vast open spaces. These are areas where there is no data service of any kind. Not only is there no 4G service, there's not even any 1G. In short, the South is a vast area of businesses, homes and government entities without reliable wireless data service. In fact, in many places, it's an area without broadband of any kind. When I would talk to the people who lived in the towns where the train ran, the best Internet access they could muster in many cases was 28.8k-bps dial-up.
The trip through the South on the train was telling because the train doesn't travel along the Interstate highways that are usually well-served, although that's not true everywhere. But when you get away from Interstate 95, there's simply nothing. I could go for an hour without seeing the slightest glimmer of a signal on any device sitting on the table looking for broadband. And when I did see a signal, it was usually the dreaded 1X type of broadband, which isn't broadband at all. It's barely connectivity.
So I began to wonder about the success of the Federal Communication Commission's change to the Universal Service Fund that's supposed to pay for providing broadband to everyone, not just well-off people and companies in urban areas.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.