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  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Leigh Eichel uses what little internet he has access to at his home in Amherst to pull up a 404 Error Page, Thursday afternoon. Eichel depends highly on internet access to do work, but can't seem to conjure Comcast to provide service despite his home being wired for high speed internet.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Leigh Eichel holds up the cable where high speed internet could enter his home, but doesn't because Comcast won't come down his street to provide service.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Leigh Eichel sits on the couch at his Amherst home while using wireless DSL because Comcast won't run high speed service to his home. He's been trying to have service provided since 2005 when he and his family moved into their home.
Monday, April 2, 2012

Upscale neighborhood’s feeble Net speeds raises a question: Should broadband be a utility?

David Brooks

When Leigh Eichel read in The Telegraph last year about federal and state efforts to extend broadband to under-served places like the town of Rindge and Grafton County, he could only sit in his big, fancy Amherst home and laugh.

He’s been trying to get broadband – real broadband, that is – for seven years.

“Every year, I start working up the telephone chain, calling people at Comcast. I’m looking for the vice president, or whatever, in charge of infrastructure so I can call him, bribe him, plead with him to connect me,” said Eichel, who moved here in 2005. “I’ll pay anything!”

The complaint of Eichel and many others on Hubbard Road, a ritzy cul-de-sac of million-dollar homes, reflects the odd situation of high-speed Internet service today.

A century ago, the government decided that mail service to all American homes was necessary and launched Rural Free Delivery. Then it decided electricity was necessary and created regulated utilities that guaranteed connection. It did the same with telephones, creating the universal access fund that collects money from all phone bills to subsidize land lines to the remotest home.

But nothing similar has happened with Internet service, which is mostly unregulated by government. The market has been largely left to its own.

The result is scattered empty spots like Hubbard Road, which should be broadband heaven.

It has just 11 houses, but they’re huge and fancy, near or at the seven-figure price tag, and owners pay between $12,000 and $28,000 a year in property taxes. They’re owned by company presidents, high-end lawyers and other well-off people, many of whom work from home – just the sort of customers happy to pay big bucks for lots of bandwidth.

But Hubbard Road was developed around 1990 when the Internet was a geeky luxury, so only electricity and phone lines were extended to each lot. Even cable TV – the town franchise was owned by now-defunct Adelphia – wasn’t available that far outside the center of town back then.

It still isn’t (Hubbard Road is wa-a-a-ay out of town).

Here’s the tricky part of the discussion: Hubbard Road does have broadband by the federal definition. Just not by the modern business definition.

First, there’s satellite Internet, but that’s way too slow, says Eichel.

Then there’s DSL, or broadband over “twisted pair” copper phone lines. FairPoint extended DSL to the development several years ago at Eichel’s urging.

But the street is too far from a central office and at the very limit of a repeater used to boost signals, so the result is feeble by modern standards: barely more than a megabyte per second up or down, and often less.

That was fast enough when America Online ruled cyberspace, but not when the Internet is a necessity to compete in the global marketplace.

“When you have three drops in a five-minute Skype call, that’s not a business-level service,” said Eichel, vice president of a software firm, who works from home. “It’s embarrassing. It’s a problem.”

Neighbor Rick Slocum, a business owner who works from home when he’s not on the road, agrees.

“When I teleconference, I tell people ‘Don’t turn your camera on,’ ” he said. “You can’t do presentations, show slides online. I have to email them to clients and say ‘See that item over there in the corner?’.”

Slocum points to a recent trip to Singapore on business.

“I was staying in a budget hotel; there weren’t even windows in the room. Hey, I was spending my own money,” he said. The Internet service seemed pretty good, he said, so he ran a speed test and “it was 12 megabytes! I was staying in something like a Motel 6, but the connection is 10 times as fast as my home.”

This is just the sort of result from uber-connected East Asia that makes many American business leaders fret that we’re falling behind. As universities start offering online college courses, as “telemedicine” offers hope for cutting health-care costs, as streaming video becomes the norm in communication, it can be argued that real broadband has become what RFD and phones once were.

What everybody really wants is universal fiber-to-the-home. Fiber optic cables, which carry signals via light rather than electricity, have vastly more capacity that wire or coax cables, and make it possible to have speeds as high as 50 or even 100 megabytes per second. Although as customers of FairPoint’s fiber-to-the-home FAST service know, even fiber reality is usually far less, depending on back-end equipment, type and number of connections to the rest of the Net, and what you want to pay. FairPoint is not expanding the FAST footprint for the foreseeable future, and certainly not to northern Amherst.

Of course, it’s possible that even fiber to the home won’t be enough one of these days.

As Slocum noted, “with electricity, once it’s there, it’s there, but the Internet is technology – it never stops changing. Who knows what will be needed 10 years from now?”

Who, indeed? But here’s a prediction: Whatever it is, Hubbard Road probably won’t have it.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or