For all of the talk about the Internet crossing borders, bridging global distances, et cetera, the plain truth is that most customers are seriously limited by their location. For one thing, where you live determines your ISP alternatives; for another, the physical infrastructure of those alternatives. Unfortunately, this adds some very real truth to the old joke that moving may be the only way to get better Internet.
ISP regions: Monopolies, duopolies, and competition
Many residential customers discover that there really is only one game in town. This is especially true when it comes to broadband, which is typically offered by the local cable and / or telephone provider. The chief reason for this is the fact that the provider is almost always the company that initially invested in and owned the infrastructure. Federal regulations require these companies to make the cable or telephone network available to competitors, and a number of smaller ISPs have indeed sprung up to meet demand — but all-in-all, very few start-up ISPs have the resources to effectively compete with national or multinational companies such as Time Warner, AT&T, Cox, Charter, et al.
In fact, when there is competition, it is usually mitigated by a vastly different range of choices. You can’t realistically call it true competition when your choice is between a 1.5 Mbit/s DSL ISP and a 20 Mbit/s cable provider. Even with the leveling factor of cost added to the equation, you’ll get a far better deal from a company which can offer a bundle of services, as well as distribute the cost throughout its diversified corporation. A provider which only does Internet (and who “rents” infrastructure and Tier 2 Internet connections from the competition to begin with) is probably not going to be able to offer as attractive a range of services to many potential customers.
One of the few standout exceptions is WOW! Cable, which has been able to maintain and grow competition to the cable ISPs in several areas. WOW! is an exception which nevertheless proves our location rule — there are only five regions served by WOW!, all of which are metropolitan areas in the Midwest.
ISP distances: How near, how far
You may be surprised to hear that millions of US residents are still using good old dial-up as their main Internet connection. Some of them may have actually chosen to do so, but most have not alternative — because where they live makes anything else impossible.
“But wait,” you object. “If they have a phone line, can’t they at least get DSL?” It’s true that DSL runs on the same copper wires as dial-up, but the actual signal is much more sensitive to distance. In fact, a DSL customer needs to be no more than 4 miles from the telco’s CO (Central Office), and even that amount of distance will have a significant limitation on connection speed.
A similar restriction applies to cable, although for slightly different reasons. As a rule of thumb, anybody who has access to cable TV should be able to get cable Internet… but cable TV networks only exist in densely populated areas (relatively speaking; you’re probably fine up to the fringes of a suburb, or the edge of a small town). This is because the cable signal, like DSL, requires sufficient power to cross distances, and each (costly) cable amplifier along the line reduces the SNR (signal-to-noise ratio). Outlying customers can make due with the occasional dropouts and artifacts of a “dirty” video signal, but high-speed digital data is even more sensitive to noise.
Fiber? Well, there isn’t a lot of distance issues with fiber optic cable — we use it to communicate across the oceans, after all. Fiber simply doesn’t have the interference and SNR issues of electrical copper wire, so you can theoretically amplify and repeat the fiber signal indefinitely without noticeable loss. However, the considerable expense of consumer fiber deployment means that it’s currently even more limited to densely populated (and largely affluent) areas. This year, fiber became available to around 20% of businesses in the US, but residental availability is far less — and the two major fiber ISPs, Verizon and AT&T, have already slowed or stopped their plans for fiber expansion to new areas.
That leaves wireless Internet. We all know that the distance from cell towers has a huge impact on our smartphones’ Internet access, not to mention the many natural and man-made environmental obstructions that can knock out reception. Mobile ISPs have been relatively good about extending data-compatible hardware to relatively remote areas, but you’re still largely limited to the same well-populated regions covered by cable and DSL providers — especially when it comes to the higher speeds (3G, 4G, LTE, etc).
For many people who are out of range of wired ISPs, satellite Internet provides a useful alternative. Anywhere that you have an obstructed view of the sky, you can probably get satellite Internet. Sure, there are drawbacks — for instance, many of the natural features that can knock out a cell signal can play havoc with satellite signals. And even though it’s a high-bandwidth connection, you’ll get a lot of latency from the 22,000 miles that the signal has to travel to and from your dish and the satellite (i.e., no online gaming). But it’s the only high-speed option for many people in remote areas, and it’s the only kind of connection for which distance from the “node” doesn’t really matter.
About the Author: Porter Olson is a writer and content specialist for UsBundles.