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    Greetings From the Far Side of the Wireless Divide

    Written by

    Michael Byrne

    The FCC delivered a fun new map last month showing the various areas in the US that still lack 3G or 4G wireless coverage, based on the most recent census results. No surprise: it’s a lot! Or I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in these days of cloud fever, it’s assumed that that unconnected area is not actually very much at all, merely some minor slack in the great tug of super-connectivity. Anyhow, these are the actually vast areas eligible for the FCC’s “Mobility Fund Phase 1,” in which the government hands out a bunch of money to various wireless providers to implement service for some of the 1,738,828 residents and 653,392 miles of highway that are currently dead zones. The first round of funding, announced yesterday, promises service within three years to 83,000 of those miles.

    The thing is that AT&T et al are a bit more concerned with wooing existing wireless consumers with various flavors of wireless icing-on-the-cake, and the building up of new and even faster networks to service the the bandwidth need feedback loop that exists in dense, already connected areas. Providing a baseline of coverage to unserved areas isn’t nearly as fruitful as shaking down existing customers for more cash. In other words, it makes more profit-sense to dig deeper into the pockets of consumers already in tower range, rather than build new towers. This is conjecture, somewhat, but the point is that wireless companies aren’t reaching into rural areas on their own, so the FCC is handing out money because maximum connectivity is in the greater national interest. The digital divide involves a lot more than getting more people onto Facebook: being unconnected means missing out on an increasing number of opportunities.

    The tab for those first 83,000 miles is $299,998,632. (A statistic that may or may not be interesting is that the federal government drops about $170 million a year to subsidize air service to rural areas.)

    Full disclosure: I’m writing this post from a coffeeshop in Cortez, Colorado, a small city at the border between the San Juan mountains and the real-ass desert. I get 3G service here, but the coverage area is pretty tiny. Ten miles up the road, toward my cabin, the 3G drops and all you get is dataless cell service. (Update: after restarting my phone a couple of times, it turns out this is actually AT&T’s old Edge network, which is essentially worthless for data.) Another five miles up the highway, and that drops out too. We have a phone with a cord, and no internet.

    At the moment, we’re actually waiting for the one installation dude in the entire Four Corners area (the giant area surrounding the convergence of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) to get up to our place to install a satellite dish, which will provide fast-ish but severely capped internet service for about double what you pay for internet in the city. Should be about a week and a half. There’s another satellite internet provider in the area, but it’s shut off new installations indefinitely. That satellite is full. Which is more or less a literal statement. (Our phone line can’t get dial-up, let alone DSL. Very old lines.)

    Oh, and I’m not in one of those areas supposed to get coverage in three years. Maybe we’ll catch Phase II or III, assuming the program isn’t canned by certain candidates that would just love to shut down valuable governmental programs. Anyhow, I live in a National Forest and didn’t move here expecting or particularly wanting 3G service. But I know well enough that I’m an exception on this side of the divide, someone privileged enough to be able to choose to live without it. For plenty of other people, service represents opportunities, and ones desperately needed at that. There’s a lot more to say about the divide, of course, and expect to hear a lot more about it from me, but Mobility Fund Phase 1 seems as good a place to start as any.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.