The Doctor on the Digital Tundra

Dr. Rene Alvarez, who works in a small city in Alaska, says his patients would be hard-pressed to pay extra for the Internet services they have come to rely on.

Dr. René Alvarez lives and works in Homer, Alaska, a small city on a scenic bay in the southwest part of the state. Getting Internet access in Homer isnt a problem. In fact, this city is the jumping-off point for a new fiber-optic link to Kodiak Island that went into operation in late July. Unfortunately, some of Alvarezs patients arent so lucky.

For the people in rural Alaska, the Internet is a vital link to the outside world. Everything that needs to be done in real time arrives through their links to the Internet. Normally, these small communities of perhaps 100 to 200 people share a community connection to the Internet and may also share a computer. With the Internet, they have not only news but also education, and they have real-time health care. Without it, they have none of these.

While AT&T executives and others have said they would never refuse to pass traffic to any Internet location, they have also said they want to be paid more. In fact, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said in a November interview in BusinessWeek that Google, Yahoo and others shouldnt be able to use "his pipes" for free. The sentiment that application providers should pay more for network access was echoed in statements by Verizon, BellSouth and other companies. As a result, there have been reports in eWEEK and elsewhere that the payment would be a charge to users who want to have access to those services.

/zimages/6/28571.gifWhile the debate over net neutrality continues, users remain the forgotten stakeholders. Click here to read more.

While its unclear how this scrum over Internet charges will play out, the math behind the net neutrality debate has Alvarez spooked. Diesel fuel, which most residents in towns such as Bethel use to heat their homes, now costs nearly $8 per gallon. If a family needs 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel to heat its home throughout the year, thats $8,000 out of a per capita income of $12,602. Bottom line: Much of what a Bethel resident makes goes toward fuel. The rest of a residents income goes to basic expenses such as electricity and food. If Internet service prices were to increase, say, $10 a month, it would be nearly a 1 percent drain on per capita income.

"Nobody thinks about these poor bastards with their $8-a-gallon diesel," said Alvarez.

Beyond the financial hit, Alvarez frets that towns such as Bethel would be further isolated if residents couldnt afford Internet access. "What source of information would they have if real-time news isnt available?" Alvarez asked. "Theyre disenfranchised. They cant vote."

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials rely on the Internet to communicate with state troopers to help guide public safety and also deliver medical care if necessary. "[It helps] if you can have the physician looking at the same thing that the person on the scene is doing," Alvarez said.

He said the Internet is equally important in education. Because most of Alaska isnt subject to the No Child Left Behind Act, getting teachers out to the people in rural Alaska is frequently impossible. "One basic use of the Internet," Alvarez said, "is for students who have classes taught over the Internet. It lets them attend the same classes as in Anchorage and Fairbanks."

Taken to the extreme, the end of net neutrality could make villages and towns in the state even more remote.

"Like usual, these guys would be left out in the cold," Alvarez said. "This is subsistence living. This has to do with being isolated and nobody listens. We know enough to know that theres a world out there that gets pulled back because it costs too much." For other users views of net neutrality, read the following:

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...