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Internet Access and Rural Co-operatives


First World Rural

April 5 · Issue #3 · View online

First World (Rural) Problems - Bringing the 21st century past city limits.

Internet access out in the woods, and 21st century co-operatives…

Moving from the city to the country has its challenges - and one of the chief topics of conversation between neighbours here is how we get internet access.
When we moved, we had to switch cellular providers because the one we had was focused on urban connectivity. We moved to the provider that had a legacy of rural investment (because it had been a government telco), but even then we had to go to great lengths to get a clear signal…
My Blackberry Pearl got reception on the roof...
My Blackberry Pearl got reception on the roof...
Then we realized that our internet access was going to be a challenge. We got a brave installer to set up a mast on the top of our 40’ high roof, and we were just able to get a signal.
Not a standard install...
Not a standard install...
That mast is still there 10 years later.
That mast is still there 10 years later.
The first time I was able to connect my laptop to the internet from inside my log house was so exciting, I had my wife take the photo so we could remember the moment. That’s my “checking my email for the first time in a while” face.
First Wifi!
First Wifi!
We have a cellular signal booster on our roof that redistributes the signal within the house. I am paying for both the 4G “smart hub” and the wireless line of sight subscription so that if one goes down, the other one will be available, giving me a better chance of being able to work without interruption.
The Canadian government has promised rural high-speed internet for everyone, but it’s not that simple in practice. Our scattered population makes fibre to the home impractical out of town, so we rely on access to towers that are themselves connected to the fibre backbone.
The growth of Netflix and Fortnite and other online activities that consume a lot of bandwidth has outpaced the growth in connectivity that rural internet service providers have been able to put in place. A common complaint is that when the kids come home from school, everyone’s internet disappears as the kids use all available bandwidth from the tower.
The market is responding, with new providers (like the one I found) moving in, spending money and gaining some subscribers. But here we have some information asymmetry, and an opportunity to provide value.
Internet towers are scattered around the landscape, and line-of-sight access means trees and hills are a problem. Our home is on the north side of a hill, surrounded by mature poplar and spruce trees, so we get the worst of all worlds. Our intrepid internet installers have had to search for the best signal from the available towers, but those towers are all heavily (some say over-) subscribed. Even our 4G cellular “smart hub” connects to a cell tower that is used by other smart hubs as well as regular cellular subscribers.
Consumers are at the mercy of physics, but also tend to suffer with whichever provider they are connected to, even if/when a competitor has moved in and made better service available in their area. Better internet access may require switching technologies, switching providers, or both. For our household, it has very much been a trial-and-error process, and because the stakes are higher for me, I’m willing to pay more than others for a reliable signal.
If we the consumers, as a group, were able to combine the information we have each gained, we’d be able to point each other to the best provider and the best tower for each location. We could track how many subscribers are connected to each tower and help the providers by offloading excess subscribers to different towers. We could negotiate with providers where there is a need for new towers, helping providers get a better return on investment.
A perfect market would solve all of these problems, but because of the complexity of the solutions required, the speed of changes to the technology, and the lock-in and inertia of people with ‘good-enough’ connectivity that they just work around, the market is extremely inefficient in this area.
I suggest a co-op might be a good solution. Some collective work gathering data could pay off for quite a few people who are getting marginal return on their internet investment. We’d need to index consumer locations, tower locations, satisfaction with internet service, and available options. I’m putting together an initial survey here. The result would be a much better negotiating position for each member of the co-op. I’ll keep you updated as I have conversations with my neighbours - maybe we’ll recreate the co-ops of a century ago, only instead of negotiating loans, insurance, and decent groceries, we’ll be working on internet connections - and maybe some other rural pain points (package delivery? rural grocery delivery?).
If this letter sparked some thoughts, forward it to a friend. Collective action works best when it reaches a critical mass. Feel free to reply to this email and start a conversation, or reach out to me on social media.
Talk to you next week, with another business model born from first world (rural) problems!
Dave from North Creek
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David Block RR 1 Site 1 Comp 271, Onoway, Alberta, Canada T0E 1V0