Aug. 27--Marilyn Gilbert says she's living in "Third World conditions," even though "we're not in rural Timbuktu."
Gilbert lives in Wildwood, a west St. Louis County suburb known for tony houses near hills and forests. People move to Wildwood to be away from the urban hubbub -- but not too far away.
In the western reaches of Wildwood, new residents discover that they've also moved away from broadband internet service. Lots of them have as much chance of watching a streaming movie over broadband as do Africans in Timbuktu.
Thus her complaint about Third World conditions in a neighborhood where houses on big wooded lots sell for $300,000 to more than $600,000.
The Federal Communications Commission says that 13 percent of Americans don't have access to broadband internet service as the commission defines it -- a speed of at least 25 megabits per second.
They live in places too sparsely populated to interest the big phone and cable companies. They wouldn't have enough customers to justify laying fiber cable into the hinterland.
Lots of rural areas are in that fix, but so are some fringe suburban spots in St. Louis County, with its 1 million residents, and other parts of the metro area. For instance, 5,000 homes in St. Clair County can't get broadband, according to Whisper, a wireless internet company.
Telephone customers pay a "universal service" fee to extend telephone service to rural areas. The FCC has been using part of that money to subsidize companies pushing broadband services into the countryside, spending $6.4 million in Illinois and $9.5 million in Missouri so far.
But it hasn't done anything for Gilbert. Her internet service, through AT&T, runs at less than 1 megabit, she says. Netflix, the streaming movie service, says it takes 3 megabits to watch a video on standard definition television, and 5 megabits for high-definition.
Streaming video just hasn't arrived at Gilbert's part of Wildwood.
"I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out," she said. "The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!"
In Wildwood, this is causing problems beyond a yearning for old "Seinfeld" episodes.
"The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work," said Wildwood Councilman Larry McGowen. "These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people's lives as electricity."
It was part of the reason that David Norvell left town. Norvell is a consultant in intellectual property and licensing. The job involves web conferences and lots of work on the internet.
The Norvells bought a home in Wildwood to be near his family. He figured he could get by with a satellite internet service for $80 a month. It didn't work very well.
"It becomes spotty if a cloud comes over. It hinders it," he said. His service had a limit on data usage. "You can't use Netflix with that or you'll eat it up."
That frustration, combined with his wife's desire for a shorter commute, led them to move to Kirkwood.
Stories like that have neighbors worried that their property values will suffer as the world depends more on the internet.
Some try workarounds, such as connecting smartphones to TVs and computers, although that takes a very generous data plan that doesn't slow connections to punish heavy use.
Residents have spent years begging for help. "We've implored the city of Wildwood, Charter, AT&T, our state reps," Gilbert said.
They're getting help, finally, but it's coming "very, very slowly," McGowen said. "We've been working on it for six years."
The part of Wildwood east of Highway 109 is well-connected. But the western half suffers. City government tried to entice Charter Communications to extend its cable to the area, but the company wanted $3 million from the city. Wildwood said no.
A Charter spokesman said the company has "extended our network to parts of Wildwood, and are currently evaluating future opportunities in that community."
Plan B involves helping two wireless internet providers, Whisper and Bays-ET. The city is putting up about a dozen 88-foot poles at a cost of about $15,000 each.
On the poles, the two companies place wireless transmitters. Customers have receivers on their houses. The service works best for those within sight of the poles, up to 6 miles away.
But Wildwood is hilly, and hills block the signal. Wet leaves blur it too. So, the companies have to post "repeaters" within sight of the poles to ricochet the signal to nearby houses.
The system works "quite well" for people in the right places, McGowen said. "We still have many, many pockets that are unserved or underserved," he said. Gilbert lives in one of them.
Whisper sells service tiers from 5 to 20 megabits. That doesn't meet the FCC's definition of broadband, and it's still well below the "up to" service promised from cable and big phone companies. Charter's lowest-tier service starts at 60 megabits, although network congestion, old routers and other problems can slow speeds below those promised.
But 10 megabits will stream a movie, or perhaps two at once, and handle most household use today. Whisper sells that for $50 a month.
Will wireless internet service rescue country-dwellers from digital Siberia? Nathan Stooke, CEO of Whisper, thinks it might.
His Belleville-based company beams internet service to 12,500 homes in Southern Illinois and the Joplin area in Missouri.
"Our bread and butter is the rural market. They have no other options," he said.
Jim Gallagher --314-340-8390
@JimGallagher14 on Twitter
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