A Whole New Farm

I’ve been offline and not writing over the last few months because I’ve been in the process of buying a little place of my own. For the past 13 years, I’ve been renting a small 100-year-old house on my sister’s farm. It has afforded me the chance to become debt free and to save enough to buy exactly the place that I want. About a month ago, I found it, a small 6-acre farmette and I quickly put an offer on it. Tomorrow, I sign the papers and by Wednesday, it will be all mine.

Now I just have to make updates to it, move everything and then figure out how to move my blind horse. I also need to get him a friend. Oh, the monetary outlay!

I am excited and terrified all at once.

One thing that’s almost shocking is the change in broadband options. I’m just moving a small distance, but my broadband speed is going from 11 Mb to 110 Mb. And, it’s substantially cheaper! Yes, I’m changing companies.

It’s amazing how very patchwork our interest access is around the country. Within an hour’s drive of the main Microsoft campus, and Amazon’s Seattle multiplex, there are still those without broadband. Yet in some of the most remote towns scattered across the west, you’ll find pockets of exceptional internet speed. Small companies are stepping up to try to fill the gaps, but they are limited by so many issues. The big companies can’t maximize profits across larger distances, so they don’t try.

The poorest counties in the United States all have inadequate or non-existent broadband access. The only large-sized company aggressively building out broadband access in rural places is Frontier. They have consistently met their promises to bring connectivity to their new customers. I’m sorry to leave them, but they don’t provide service at my new house.

Oh, the things I’m going to do with 110 Mbs…

New Tech!

What’s new in the world of tech! More importantly, what’s new that folks in the countryside can use and use effectively? Actually, quite a bit.

The way we access information is changing in a profound way. We now have devices, instead of computers. In fact, I’m using my new EVO Android mobile phone to write this post. I’m no longer tied to a desk in an office, either. I’m composing this entry from the stable on my farm, while watching over Meme, the draft horse mare who is not feeling well.

For rural folks, this divergence of input-output devices means more options in accessing broadband. Many times we may have access to cell phone coverage but no wired broadband. Other times, we do have broadband but no signal for our cell phones. These new devices allow us to access the internet from any source. My phone is currently using my wi-fi to get to my blog site, but can switch to cellular coverage if I go out of range of my N-router. Nice!

There is one company, Republic Wireless, that has been testing new software, in beta, on Android phones, that will automatically send everything through a cable or DSL connection, when it finds one. This includes even your cell phone calls! The cell minutes used each month is less and the price, consequently, goes down accordingly. The beta cost for Republic Wireless was $19 a month. I’m hoping that they continue that pricing structure once they go live with the system. Fingers crossed! Right now, I’m using Virgin Mobile’s $35 a month unlimited data plan, (unlimited texting, 300 minutes talk) which is a darned site better in cost than any of the big company plans.

Microsoft just announced their Surface tablet which will have the new Windows 8 operating system. I’m dying to play with one and see how it functions. It comes with a keyboard built in and real ports, such as USB and HDMI, which you need to function in a business environment. The iPad requires bluetooth, which most existing monitors and projectors just don’t have. Still other companies are coming out with larger format phones and smaller tablets. Soon, especially when they are able to market flexible screens, our laptops, tablets, phones, and MP3 players will meld into one device, capable of doing everything you need, from calling your mother, to publishing your writing, to running a globally diverse online conference. In addition, it will be small enough to fit in your pocket.

Prices will continue to come down as portability expands. Next year, a new law goes into effect that allows you to choose any cell phone service no matter what phone you have. (This is currently how it works in Europe.) The prices, consequently, are going to have to come down, as the various phone monopolies are eradicated.

Incidentally, my mare, Meme, should be just fine. She just got too much green pasture grass, I’m sure. The vet paid a visit and administered good medications. She will feel better in the morning. Still, I like to watch over her.

Farmer’s Tan and Washington Broadband

It’s been a lovely Easter weekend, our first to hit 70 degrees this year. I managed to plant some flowers, but that is all I’ve done to prepare for spring. I do, however, have a great start on my farmer’s tan.

In the “Who Knew?” department is this tidbit of information: The Washington State Department of Commerce has a five year program, the Washington State Broadband Office. (Yes, it was news to me, and I keep track of these things.) If you click on Mapping, you can view their interactive map which will tell you if you have broadband in your area and who the providers are. There are also tools for communities who want inital or better access to broadband for their areas, including grants for training.  They even have a Twitter feed!

If you aren’t in Washington, try looking up a “broadband office” for your state. It most likely will be part of the Commerce department.

FCC Overhauls the Universal Service Fund

What’s the Universal Service Fund and what does that mean to those of us who want and need broadband? Let’s just say, it’s a big deal.

“We are taking a system designed for the Alexander Graham Bell era of rotary telephones and modernizing it for the era of Steve Jobs and the Internet future he imagined,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

In other words, by improving efficiencies in how technologies are handled, rural places can be brought into the 21st century, without increasing the amount of funding already set aside for rural communications systems. More details can be found in the USA Today article: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/story/2011-10-27/fcc-rural-broadband-fund/50960016/1?loc=interstitialskip or at http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/connecting-america.

Still, I’m constantly amazed at how many people feel that rural broadband should not be funded at all, that internet access is a privilege granted only to those who live in densely populated areas. They say, “If you want broadband, move to the city”. I say that this is the height of self-interest and denies that rural places have anything to offer those who don’t live there.

If you live in the city or the suburbs, you benefit directly from rural production. You wouldn’t have food, building materials, oil, gas, or all the minerals that go into your iPads and X-boxes if it weren’t for folks who live and work in the country. By denying these industries, and the people who work in them, access to high-speed connections, we are actually increasing the costs of those goods to ourselves. When farmers have to call long distance on a conventional phone in order to get their produce to the right market, they have to pass those costs onto their consumers. The same goes for any industry that tries to succeed on an uneven playing field. By getting the efficiencies of new technologies into the hands of businesses, rural or urban, we make everyone’s life better. I won’t even mention how difficult it is for rural industries to compete in a world market, where other countries have much more advanced high-speed systems. (Oh pooh! I just mentioned it.)

Here are a few statistics about the benefits we’ll see from the overhaul of the Universal Service Fund:

  • Americans living in unserved rural areas who will receive access to broadband over the next decade: 18 million
  • Consumers who will get mobile broadband coverage where they live, work, and travel: millions
  • Jobs created related to new deployment in rural areas over five years: 500,000
  • Annual economic benefits in rural areas from new deployment: $700 million
  • Annual increase in economic growth, creating jobs: $50 billion
  • Benefit to cost ratio for consumers: $3 to $1
  • Percentage of FORTUNE 500 companies that post job openings online only – and require online applications: over 80 percent
  • Graduation rates for students with broadband at home compared to similar students with no broadband access: 6% to 8% higher



Broadband, at Last!

As of noon today, all three houses on the farm were hooked up to high-speed DSL. We’ve been waiting for a decade for this and today it finally happened. It’s almost unbelievable.

Frontier, a smaller telco company, recently bought all the rural telephone lines across the nation from Verizon, with the ideal of providing fiber broadband to every one of their customers. Then they started rewiring every area that was still without a connection. They installed new equipment, hired new, locally-based customer service representatives, and started contacting customers, letting them know that broadband was coming.

Frontier has discovered that rural broadband can be profitable. Once the capital cost of the initial equipment and wiring is covered, the return on investment can be quite good, providing management maintains a handle on costs. Distance will diminish profits somewhat but does not eliminate them. In a down market, Frontier is growing and hiring, simply by providing services to rural areas.

The adoption rate around here, I’m sure, is going to be high. A number of neighbors called me, asking if it was really true that we were going to get a high-speed connection. They wanted to sign up right away. Then, the techs who came to install my system said they already had 200 requests for new connections that weekend.

Today, I dropped some of the last squash to be harvested at The Neighbor’s house. She, in the few days she’s had broadband, has discovered online gaming. She took the pumpkin and carnival squash from my hands and, without even setting them down, went back to slaying the enemy’s cavalry before they overran her castle. Apparently, she said, there is no pause. I have an indelible image in my mind of her hacking at the enemy troops while cradling squash in her left arm. Truly, she’s a bonafide rural geek.

Wild, Wild West – Part 2

Today, a link to a Missoula news story flipped across my twitter feed. It announces a new fiber cable broadband system covering 300 miles across both the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal areas. In combining this new system with existing networks, most of the state from the Rockies to Idaho will be wired. This means that by 2013, Western Montana is going to have quite an extensive broadband capability across an huge area that also provides beautiful scenary, lots of land, and a motivated workforce. Now that’s a recipe for a robust economy!

So, how does Washington State compare? Not well. We may have the fastest speed in the U.S. (Ephrata, at 27Mbps download), but very little of the state has any coverage at all. Many areas within an hour’s drive of the big Microsoft campus are shockingly underserved.


Learning from a Master

Cathi with Brisk and Solven

I had a wonderful time visiting with Dr. Doug Hammill and Cathi Greatorex in Eureka. I was able to meet their fabulous horses: the Suffolk Punches, the Fjords, Misty the Clydesdale, a Welsh pony, and Cody. We then had “dissolve your spoon” coffee (my favorite) and talked about internet tools and teaching about draft horses.

One interesting aspect to younger farmers is that they are treating new technologies much as older folks treat indoor plumbing or lawn mowers, as just another tool. Since they’ve grown up with it, there just isn’t a technological divide in their minds about how to use it. So, when they want to find out about a subject, what’s the first thing they do? They look it up online. Periodicals, which have been the traditional way to advertise farming services, are not the first resource for younger farmers although they do read them for a deeper understanding of things. To pass on the type of skills Doc Hammill has about draft horses to a new generation, an online presence is almost mandatory. Social media skills are rather important, too.

Doc with Kate and Ann

Doc driving Kate and Ann

There are several websites devoted to young farmers, including Greenhorns, Earthineer,  and the WA Young Farmers Coalition, (click on the Small Farm Resources link above for more on these). I encourage those who have years of experience to try to reach  them there. Cathi mentioned one thing keeping folks from enhancing their online presence: they simply want to be outside farming. Their passion is not sitting behind a computer screen. It’s riding behind a horse, plowing a furrow. It’s planting or harvesting. It’s not learning html. Are there any shortcuts to getting your business online? I think so, and I’ll share what I have learned in a later post.

Doc and Cathi have many great stories to tell (and if you attend one of their workshops, you’ll get to hear many of them). The best was this:  Amish kids have discovered battery-powered LED lights and have been adding them to their buggies. There’s nothing stranger than seeing a pimped-out buggy going down the road, lights a’blazing.

If you want to learn more about working with draft horses or perhaps attending one of Doc Hammill’s workshops, go to: Doc Hammill Horsemanship. He is the best trainer I’ve worked with.

If Vermont can do it…

…why can’t we? Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont has said Internet access is a necessity, and he has pledged to bring broadband to every last mile of the state by 2013. How can fiber optic companies reach the remotest areas of the state without breaking the bank? They are using draft horses.

Yes, and being successful at it. See Draft horses bring fiber optics to remote locations. They are laying lines in the most remote places and by 2013, everyone in Vermont will have access.

<rant alert> I live less than an hour’s drive from the main Microsoft campus, 52 minutes from downtown Seattle, yet have no broadband available – no cable, no DSL, no cellular wifi. There are no plans for at least the next several years in this state to bring broadband to rural spaces. We’ve been cherry-picked as less-than-desirable by access providers. I almost feel as though farming is a pre-existing condition to them. <end of rant>

The Open Internet and Rural Broadband

On April 8th, (yes, that was just this last Friday during the big budget debate) the House passed   H. J. RES. 37 concerning the openess of the internet. This is what the bill says, in its entirelty: 

    Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress disapproves the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to the matter of preserving the open Internet and broadband industry practices (Report and Order FCC 10-201, adopted by the Commission on December 21, 2010), and such rule shall have no force or effect.

So, what does that mean? Here is the text of Report and Order FCC 10-201. It is concerned with the limitiations that internet service providers are allowed to place on users and content. It significantly curtails “the ability of broadband providers to favor or disfavor Internet traffic to the detriment of innovation, investment, competition, public discourse, and end users.” In other words, it keeps the internet open and accessible. H. J. RES. 37 would kill the FCC’s ability to keep the internet neutral.

The Senate version is S.J.RES.6. and has not been passed yet. Need I mention that this may indeed be the perfect time to contact your Senator to ensure that this resolution not be passed?

In other congressional news, a new bill, HR 1083 – Rural Broadband Initiative Act, introduced March 15th, amends the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to establish in the Department of Agriculture (USDA) the Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives. Is the USDA the right department to handle rural broadband? Truly, I don’t know, but somebody needs to ensure that broadband reaches us. Frankly, rural broadband is not going to happen if we merely encourage private enterprise to provide it. It’s going to take another act like the ones that brought electricity and telephones to every house in the country.

The bill I really like is Maria Cantwell’s S.74: Internet Freedom, Broadband Promotion, and Consumer Protection Act of 2011. It ensures net neutrality by amending the Communications Act of 1934 which regulates common carriers. Someone has to because corporations won’t.

Broadband? What’s that?

After listening to the State of the Union address, and hearing the President’s mention of bringing broadband access to rural places, I have one question: what does he mean by broadband? If you can’t use Skype, is it still broadband? What about streaming videos, connecting to virtual private networking, or playing World of Warcraft? If you can’t conference online, what use is it for your small business or farm?

The President was talking about wireless broadband covering our rural spaces. Will it provide these kinds of services, the ones suburban America already enjoys? Satellite certainly doesn’t. Cellphone wireless won’t provide many of them, especially VoIP. In the State of the Union fact sheet, it only discusses high-speed internet, without giving specifications or a timeline of any kind.

It will be interesting to see how this initiative will take shape. Here’s my hope for the best.