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Tales from the slow side

Residents have strange techniques for dealing with sluggish Internet speeds

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Doug Mason of Heath with his satellite for TV, below, and internet.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Doug Mason of Heath with his satellite for TV, below, and internet.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Doug Mason of Heath and his satellite dish for his internet access

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Doug Mason of Heath and his satellite dish for his internet access

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Wendell resident Lisa Hoag checks her email from her car parked in the lot of the Wendell Free Library taking advantage of  the wifi hotspot.<br/><br/>

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Wendell resident Lisa Hoag checks her email from her car parked in the lot of the Wendell Free Library taking advantage of the wifi hotspot.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Wendell resident Lisa Hoag checks her email from her car parked in the lot of the Wendell Free Library taking advantage of  the wifi hotspot.<br/><br/>

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Wendell resident Lisa Hoag checks her email from her car parked in the lot of the Wendell Free Library taking advantage of the wifi hotspot.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell in his studio.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell in his studio.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell with his satelite disc he needs for internet access.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell with his satelite disc he needs for internet access.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Wendell Free Library

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Wendell Free Library

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Doug Mason of Heath with his satellite for TV, below, and internet.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Doug Mason of Heath and his satellite dish for his internet access
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Wendell resident Lisa Hoag checks her email from her car parked in the lot of the Wendell Free Library taking advantage of  the wifi hotspot.<br/><br/>
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Wendell resident Lisa Hoag checks her email from her car parked in the lot of the Wendell Free Library taking advantage of  the wifi hotspot.<br/><br/>
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell in his studio.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell with his satelite disc he needs for internet access.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Wendell Free Library

From towns “that never sleep” because residents are forced to do dial-up downloads overnight to those where people resort to “drive-by” connections outside their libraries, rural Franklin County has resorted to some strange behaviors to make due with slow-speed connections in a high-speed age.

Behaviors like using a string of tin cans and Tupperware containers may sound strange to the lucky people on the other side of the digital divide.

“Every once in a while, someone wants 90 pictures,” says Doug Mason, a professional photographer who lives in Heath. “I tell people they’ll see them in two hours.”

It’s that kind of embarrassing “disconnect” from the high-speed reality of more urban areas that Mason faces — like other professionals with home-based businesses in the most rural part of what’s thought of as an urban state.

When it came time to download new Photoshop software for his computer, Mason had to resort to what fellow Heath resident Doug Wilkins calls “drive-by” computing, parking at the Heath Town Hall to pick up its wireless signal. At least that was the case before several weeks ago, when he upgraded to a higher-grade satellite service.

Otherwise, he said, “It would have taken me 24 hours.”

When the talk turns to the kind of fiber connection that Wired West hopes to put in place in Heath and other rural towns around Western Massachusetts, Mason says, “We’re dying for that. We’re so close to the edge of the technology working. Half of the time it’s working, the other half it doesn’t.”

For his wife, Nina Marshall, who telecommutes for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Conservation International, “connection for her is a problem on an hourly basis.” Their Skype calls have gotten dropped; it’s taken what seems an eternity to pick up her Google mail and documents; and — before they upgraded to a service that costs $110 a month — they ran the risk of having their service “throttled” if they ran over the strict bandwidth limits.

Because of a quirk in the way phone service is delivered in Heath, with Mason’s service coming southward from the center of town instead of from the Mohawk Trail, he and other neighbors in the southern part of town can’t access a faster Verizon Digital Subscriber Line that’s only a quarter-mile away.

* * *

In Wendell, graphic artist and Web designer Lisa Hoag has had to park in front of the town library with her laptop, but also take advantage of other area libraries and even rent studio space rather than depend on dial-up from home to get work done.

“For years, I used to work offline from home and upload files to the Internet, working with only dialup,” says Hoag, who’s been forced to rent shared studio space in Easthampton, 40 minutes away at an estimated cost of $350 a month, including commuting expenses. “Now when you do Web design, you have to be able to work directly on site with a content management system. You can’t do that by dial-up. But even the simplest task can’t really be done on dial-up anymore. And 15 years ago, there were things you could do on your phone that you can’t do anymore. Everybody’s switching things over to the Internet.

On even a weather site, “it takes five minutes for the page to download. The pictures take long enough, but before they give you any data, they want to load up all their ads. It’s becoming more like TV, where have to wait for them to upload their sponsors’ content before can get the data.

Accessing Hoag’s Gmail account, means that she watches the clock tick by, taking six to 10 times longer than it would with a high-speed connection.

“You need to kind of keep a running schedule of which libraries are open when,” she says. And then, since Hoag’s running a business and needs to also talk with her customers, she needs to find a balance of trying to find a space that’s not too quiet, like a library, nor too raucous, like a music-filled Internet cafe .

“Anytime I have to deal with a large file size, I wait until I’m down in the valley,” says Hoag, who’s also organized an Internet Access Club to take advantage of the Wendell library’s separate community room when the library itself is closed. That means people taking turns once a month to get the key, return it and also assure that the space is monitored for food and usage and then left tidy.

“It’s a bit of a hassle,” she said, but it’s better than having to drive miles out of town if she’s trying to work from home.”

* * *

Elsewhere in Wendell, filmmaker Robbie Leppzer says he’s had to stay up until the wee hours to take advantage of the free, unlimited upload opportunity from midnight to 5 a.m. on his satellite dish when he’s working on large files.

“Satellite works OK, as a minimal thing,” says Leppzer, who in the past has had to drive to the Jones Library in Amherst to upload a lot of video material.

“This is a really big problem,” said Leppzer. “Having real broadband is key to economic development in our area, and we;re going to be held back without it. … It’s been enormously frustrating.”

* * *

Reva Reck, a Warwick computer consultant, has satellite service because her house falls outside the range of the town-owned Warwick Broadband Service.

But because her husband, a professional photographer, had a virus on his computer and had to upload new software, the couple used up their satellite contract’s allowable capacity and “got fapped,” and had to wait a full 30 days under Wild Blue’s Fair Access Policy before they could resume their upload and download limits at speeds faster than dial-up.

Meanwhile, her husband, Tom Wyatt, has had to park outside the town library to do his photo uploads.

And Reck rents $100-a-month office space in Northfield. That’s because of latency issues of working with satellite, even when her “fapped” status improves.

With latency, there’s a delay in the signal, so if she has to take remote control of a client’s computer, the lag between when she moves her mouse and clicks, makes it hard to tell where the click will register.

“If I have something quick I have to do, it will just take twice as long, but if there’s any real work to do, I have to go to Northfield or to the client.”

Warwick has been dubbed “the town that never sleeps” by the Norton-based firm that helped set up the system because its 155 customers use it around the clock to avoid bottlenecks, according to Town Administrator David Young.

“At 3 in the morning you might wait a long time for a vehicle to pass on even our most heavily traveled road. Not so with Internet traffic,” he says, based on a monitoring of activity levels.

* * *

Paul Borneo’s self-designed high-speed network was described as more of a string than a broadband, but for a while, it actually provided his Lake Wyola neighbors with free Internet access.

“It’s like a string with tin cans, except we’re finding it pretty reliable and fast,” the Shutesbury software developer said back in 2004 of the network he created for about 20 neighbors so that he and they wouldn’t have to choose between dial-up service or driving into Amherst.

Frustrated by what he called “abysmal” options, Borneo signed up with Choice One for a 900-kilobit-per-second high-speed business line available from Amherst, for $250 a month, then began asking neighbors who wanted to pitch in $50 to share three months of service.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to do this, and I started knocking on my neighbor’s doors. After several weekends of knocking , I got enough people to write me checks to buy the first nine radios and eight antennas, plus Tupperware containers to put cable outdoors.”

Borneo spent $2,000 for equipment and began designing a system that used a combination of wireless radios and transmitters, and cable that Borneo and neighbors set up through the woods.

He likened it to “having the Yankee ingenuity of a farmer, but we’re tilling cyber-fields.” “This is an effort to come up with at least some solution that can carry us through until fiber comes to town in two or three years.”

More than eight years later, the Borneo connection is gone, says, Aron Goldman, another Shutesbury resident who began looking for high-speed solutions soon after he moved to town and realized that, unlike where he’d lived in New Jersey and Brooklyn, this community on Amherst’s doorstep had no broadband.

“It required fairly labor-intensive maintenance, and it was pretty unreliable,” recalls Goldman. “There with problems with wires on the ground, with lightning and animals eating them. The system relied on his ingenuity, and then he just disappeared at some point.”

As for Goldman, a policy analyst who helped create a Shutesbury Broadband that merged with neighboring Leverett’s effort, he says the past decade of trying to find a broadband solution has been a frustrating education.

“As soon as I started asking around, it was not subtle,” he recalls. “People were beside themselves, struggling with this problem. We’re right on the Amherst border, and we salivate over people just a couple hundred feet away enjoying speeds everyone else enjoys.”

In response to requests by his committee, Comcast actually did a study and said the town simply didn’t have the population density to justify bringing in a cable connection. But after years of working on the problem, the town committee has little to show for its efforts beyond its membership in the Wired West municipal cooperative.

Leverett, whose broadband committee broke off from Shutesbury’s effort, has gone on to begin building its own town broadband network.

As for Goldman, he says, “I’m very jealous of Leverett and what they’re doing.”

Related

Bringing county a high-speed network has been slow-going

Thursday, April 4, 2013

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Like the rural electrification and development of a telephone system in the last century, building a multi-million-dollar telecommunications system across the region is seen as key to economic development and bridging the “digital divide” that becomes more important to how we live and do business. This is the second in a five-part series.) “Like a new railroad line … 0

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