Desperately Seeking Bandwidth
by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont
Until last winter, my home had been internet-free by choice. I had plenty of the stuff at work, it seemed to me. But then one morning my laptop, sitting on my dining room table and unconnected to anything, unexpectedly began retrieving my email all of its own accord. Mystified, I poked around a little and discovered that a neighbor had installed a wireless network in his home, and my laptop had detected that network and auto-connected. Broadband internet had chased me down into the privacy of my home.
And then it seduced me. My neighbor’s signal would fade in and out, but when it worked, it was oddly compelling. Yes, it was convenient to be able to check the movie schedule online, or send an email the moment it occurred to me. But there was something more, a craving, a constructed lack, evidenced by an outsized sense of frustration and annoyance when my neighbor’s system suddenly disappeared from the airwaves, leaving me in a state that had only a short time before seemed entirely satisfactory. Work on an online course gave me an excuse to give in to the urge and order broadband. But in the back of my head, I knew it was just an excuse. Really, I was responding to a compulsion.
My first try was with Verizon DSL. After a promising start ordering direct from their website — might friction-free ecommerce be a reality after all? — I ran in to problems. I went through countless rounds of vague robotic phone messages left on my answering machine (”Verizon has determined that we are unable to provide service to your address”) and lots of tinny Vivaldi while I sat on hold waiting for tech support. After three weeks I finally arrived home one day and found a phone message in the sonorous voice of Verizon spokesperson James Earl Jones, welcoming me to DSL and encouraging me to start my service. But then I picked up the phone. No dial tone. Every phone line in my house was dead. From hopes of high tech to no tech at all. It occurred to me that the message on my phone had the voice of Darth Vader.
No one needs broadband in the home. Plain old telephone service is cheaper, more reliable, and much more useful in life-threatening situations. Broadband belongs in the category of discretionary spending — alongside psychotherapy, mag wheels, and Barbie dolls. So why did this frustrating experience make me only more determined to get broadband?
When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, telecommunications was just there, an unchanging part of the landscape. Phones were uniform, indestructible things solidly attached to the wall, and they all worked, pretty much all the time. As a child, once you’d learned the basics of dialing a rotary phone, there wasn’t much else to think about. We called the phone company “Ma Bell,” because it just seemed an inevitable and unchanging presence in the background of life, neither interesting nor worrisome (which perhaps also says something about how we understood motherhood back then). Those were the days of the AT&T monopoly, when one giant phone company owned just about everything, including the wires in your walls and the phones attached to them. That monopoly, established approximately a century ago and fully consolidated in the 1920s and ’30s, had by the 1950s provided the U.S. with the cheapest, most reliable phone system in the world.
But it also turned out to be against the law. In 1984 the U.S. Justice Department broke up AT&T into several regional divisions dubbed the “baby bells,” and made it legal to compete with the phone companies at multiple levels, from long-distance service to consumer devices. That event, combined with ever cheaper microchips and their derivations like microcomputers and modems, ushered in the era of answering machines, phones in bubble packs at the corner store, and dinner-time harassment from competing providers of long-distance service. The era of humdrum, reliable communications was over. The days of constant, eerily fluctuating ways to communicate had commenced.
So here I was deep in the new era. The next day, after being treated to more Vivaldi on my office phone, I asked the Verizon DSL tech support person, can DSL really wipe out someone’s phone service? He ticked off a list of what were to me incomprehensible technical phrases, and then concluded, “yes, it could happen.” He directed me to local phone repair office. “Should I tell them this might have been caused by DSL?” I asked. “Off the record,” he replied, “I’d say definitely not. If they think it’s the DSL division’s fault they might send you back to us and you could get stuck in an infinite loop between divisions. Just tell them your phone’s out, and let them figure it out.” As a Franz Kafka fan, I knew to follow his advice.
The local phone repairman who showed up to restore my dial tone, “Bill” (not his real name) was a pleasant, quiet man. He concluded he needed to put in completely new lines from the trunk. Watching him work, I was impressed by the fluid skill with which he stripped and wrapped wires, fitted boxes, and manipulated tools while high on the pole. At one point he looked at the wires in my basement and said, “That connection is older than me, and I’m almost fifty.” Bill’s expert craftsmanship was a legacy of the old era, embodying a century of institutional experience with copper wire telephone technology. And that skill was valuable; I needed it. As he left, I thought about the way the new era impacted him: phone company employees have been fighting a twenty-year, usually losing battle against downsizing and cutbacks, while their upper management simultaneously wildly inflates their own salaries and gropes for ways to replace their employees with nonunion workers and machines.
Having lost confidence in Verizon’s abilities to handle new-era technology, I then moved on to a new local start-up snappily named “Soundtivity,” which offered internet service that involved wirelessly beaming a signal to my rooftop from nearly a mile away, completely leapfrogging the old-era infrastructure. A few days later, a twenty-something young man stood at my doorstep in shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes, a coil of odd black cable over his shoulder: “Jeremy Ward, Soundtivity CEO,” according to his business card. Behind him stood Richard, “Director of Marketing” (which, judging by appearances, meant he was the guy who carries the ladder). “This shouldn’t take more than an hour,” said Jeremy confidently.
A month later, Jeremy and Richard had been to my house close to ten times, so often that they’d become friendly with my nine-year old son and familiar with where I kept the Cokes in the fridge; they were beginning to feel like roommates. There had been much drilling, fiddling with cables, servers, and antennas, and repeated scrambling in and out of my bedroom window to reach my chimney. It took them about a week to get a some kind of internet signal into my house, but it was slow, only a fraction of the 1.2 mbps they had promised, so they persevered. I’d been watching fairly closely, at first out of curiosity, and then out of fear for the integrity of my home’s walls, as it became clear that their installation skills were not exactly well-honed. Watching Jeremy balance at the top of the ladder, a laptop in one hand while grasping the chimney with the other, I wondered if he could afford to buy himself health insurance.
Jeremy sometimes called and asked me to test my connection speed using a special website. I began checking the site obsessively. You go to the site, click on a “test” button and, after a few minutes, a bar graph appears, with the kbps speed of your connection graphically indicated in a red bar, in between a series of green bars representing other typical speeds. The bars also have labels: the shortest green bar, 33.6 kbps, the speed of a modem on a slow phone line, is labeled “ugh.” As the bars get longer, up into 200-400 kbps range, the label shifts to “OK.” But the label “broadband” is reserved for 500 kbps and above. Curious, I eventually tried running the test on my laptop in a wireless-equipped coffee shop: over 2048 kbps, which earns the label “fast,” just below the green “very fast.” And then, on campus in mid-summer with no students to slow the network down, I jacked in my ethernet cable to a site which I knew to have extra-high-speed connections: the result, well over 5000 kbps, is labeled, “Dude!” Broadband’s perfect wave.
In the broad historical view, that 1960s “Ma Bell” sense of stability was really just a brief moment of calm in a longer history of weird turbulent change in how we communicate. From the spread of the telegraph in the 1850s to radio amateurs in the ‘teens to rural satellite dish aficionados of the 1980s, there have often been periods where manic tinkerers take the lead in exploring new possibilities for telecommunications, while the more stable, lumbering institutions struggle to adjust. Yes, it is driven by vertiginous capitalist forces, but not in a way that can be neatly reduced to need or rational economic calculation. As U.S. household penetration of broadband internet creeps towards fifty percent, it’s worth remembering that what economists call “demand” and what film theorists call “desire” are just as clearly related as they are different.
After four months, I’m getting a reliable 600 kbps speed from Soundtivity. Jeremy recently told me that he’s “deemphasizing” residential service (if every installation went like mine, I’d guess, he’d be out of business in no time). He’s noticed that, because Verizon is putting mid-sized broadband providers out of business by using its deep pockets to undersell them, DSL routing equipment is appearing at bargain prices on EBay. Nimble entrepreneur that he is, he hopes to send wireless internet signals to the tops of mountains and then use the recycled DSL equipment to run the service to farms and other isolated rural spots that the big companies do not want to bother with. But to his credit, he is not giving up on me. He’s proposed bumping my system up to a higher band, which might get the speed he originally promised. I don’t really need it. But it sure would be cool.
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