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.

Wikipedia: “Bandwidth”
How DSL Works

Please feel free to comment.


  • In some ways, Streeter’s column can be read as a metaphor for the larger cultural struggles of integrating new communications technologies into our lives, a struggle that takes an increasingly shorter amount of time. Cell phones seem to have taken over public spaces in a brief span and the internet, which ten years ago was a novelty, is now commonplace at work and in homes. The column also, though, points to how telecommunication technologies have been comfortably domesticate; that unlike new technologies of the past that initially were intended for public use–telegraph, radio—advances now are quickly marketed for home use. I suppose the question that confronts us is not “do we really need it” but what the consequences of turning over our homes increasingly to new technologies will be.

  • Issues relevant to connectivity

    As the author points out, broadband is not a thing that is necessary in the household, yet it is becoming one of the most pervasive “luxuries” in the nation. So the question has now shifted from whether or not it will prove its utility and more toward what effects it will have. People with slower connections have learned to live with and work around it and often have little desire to upgrade unless they realize the difference. And oddly enough most can’t even describe the difference; there’s nothing there with broadband that’s not there with dialup. Yet with this more effective means to access and — increasingly — add information with near-global access people generally will only very reluctantly give up their connectivity. In an interesting parallel to cable television many internet users feel that (in contrary to early theories) they are more connected and open to a variety of opinions and views than if their only correspondence was with “real life” people and classic radio/television/newspaper media sources. The issues of privacy and security are all placed against this need to feel connected to the outside world, and while it is not a new urge the “outside world” that can be connected to is increasingly larger. And people will always be willing to pay a little bit more for a better connection to the rest of the world, whether it be a faster connection or a new technology altogether.

  • re: Issues relevant to connectivity

    [I hope it’s kosher on this site to reply to a discussion of my own piece]

    I’d rephrase Charles Smith’s last sentence “people will FREQUENTLY pay a little bit more for a faster connection” and that in spite of all the market theory, this can not be explained in terms of utility. There’s a kind of fluidity or unpredictability about the desire for technology, I think, that’s more about something like “pleasure” than need.

  • re Desperately Seeking Bandwidth

    I remember that when I first read Castells about the”space of flows” in 1996, it seemed overly abstract, hard to relate to one’s own life. Sure I had been on the Internet since it was Bitnet, but that still seemed a tool, not a space for my life. Things change. I find that if I am away from either laptop or broadband for more than a few hours, I feel physically dislocated and cut-off. Desperately seeking connectivity. Needing to be in the space of flows. Needing to read what has to say about the elections. Downloading a Rolling Stones clip from the Ed Sullivan show. Watching the BBC news in pieces.In contrast, I have rather cavalierly dumped either cable or satellite TV at least seven or eight times over 20 years whenever I need to cut back expenses. There is something personal and compelling to me about the current mad diversity of the Internet. And something ubiquitously connective about laptops and wireless bandwidth. It has me feeling that it’s too bad I can’t get more of what I want most of TV through my computer more easily. I find myself watching DVDs of TV series on my laptop rather than turning on the tube. Utter heresy for a long time student of TV. And just after I had convinced myself that the continued co-existence of media channels was turning convergence on its head. Given the meta-topic of flow here, it might be interesting to think which mediatic flows currently bind us and why. Thanks to Tom Streeter for an interesting thead.

  • Jessie Mikolaichik

    I think a lot of people would find that they could live quite content if they had never started using the internet on a regular basis, but its network of connectivity is very attractive and sucks you it, so that once you’ve gotten used to it you’re hooked. I did not own a computer until last Christmas; I used to have to find a computer lab or hunt down access to internet whenever I had an online assignment or if I needed to check my email for school. But now I find myself spending more and more time connected to the internet just for personal use. I won’t go more than 2 hours without checking my email or paying a regular visit to a site with information I could easily get elsewhere. But its just so much more convenient, it kind of bothers me. Now everything is so readily accessible, there’s no work required, all you have to do is click. I also find it very interesting how so much of college work has become computer based. I guess it is logical to assume that everyone can have internet access virtually at any given time. I know if I didn’t, school would be much more of a burden (than it already is).

  • I know I COULD get along without a decent internet connection, but I don’t WANT to. I don’t NEED to check my e-mail every few hours, but I do it RELIGIOUSLY. As our cell phones start becoming more and more computer-like, we’re going to be able to indulge those impulses everywhere we go, easier than with a laptop. I feel like that might be the last step for a while though as far as the ‘history of weird turbulent change’ Streeter mentioned.

  • I know that I could also get by without DSL, but it is just so much more convient to have faster Internet speed, especially when trying to research something for school. In fact, I’m usually researching things on the Internet only due to my personal curiosity, and a high speed connection only makes it more efficient. Hoever, I also understand Steeter’s frustrations about trying to use his neighbor’s broadband, because I get the same sort of problems with DSL, sometimes making me not help but feel like I’ve been ripped off.

  • Nectar of the Gods

    Ok first lets get one misconception out of the way, dial-up is not more realiable than “broad band”. Thats just crazy to believe that something you have to connect to 5-6 times a day is more realible than something that is connected all the time. That fact of the matter is 90% of the problems with a persons connection is with the user and not with the isp. Can you live without the internet, sure you can. You can live without the sun, hell you can live without food and water for awhile too. The information super highway has simply become an essential part of our lives, much like the horeless carriage, the television box and radar.

  • Speed is Addicting

    DSL is faster, but is it essential??? I agree that DSL is a luxury, but who needs that kind of speed for personal use? But then I think, what else is out there that over indulges with “SPEED?” What about cars, no one needs to go 0-60 in 4.3 seconds with the highways we live in today, but people still throw in the extra 30 grand to have this “luxury.” I guess the point is, we dont need to go 0-60 in 4.3 seconds, but just like DSL, it sure is nice to get somewhere a little quicker than the others.

  • Reading this article really hit home. At home home, my family started out with the free 56k dial-up. Long story short, we eventually “upgraded” to Verizon’s DSL a few years ago. And we have run into a lot of problems with Verizon DSL. Many times our internet speed would be much slower than dial-up! And that website Streeter was talking about, it’s definitely addicting for a period of time to keep checking to see if the connection is at the speed it’s supposed to be. The speed is not necessary, but I believe that faster Internet primarily gives our society a more convenient and easy way to communicate and to find out about anything from art to current events almost instantaneously. We pay for the convenience and efficiency that faster connection provides us. Immediacy has come hand in hand with our lifestyle. Being able to communicate inexpensively and quickly also leaves us feeling wanted and connected to our friends and the “world” even if we’re not always at the computer.

  • goodbye wires

    I too know just how frustrating wired Internet service can be, and like Streeter pointed out, technology is changing constantly. Wireless Internet could soon make DSL and Cable-internet obsolete. I have had much more problems with wired DSL in terms of speed and connectivity than with any wireless network I have accessed. Wireless Internet has the potential to mimic the way cable Television started out in the early 80’s. Cable TV used to only exist in rural, mountainous areas where TV broadcast signals would weaken and break. Now Wireless and satellite Internet services are being used to reach areas in the world where a cable would be too costly to install. If wireless interment continues this trend it may be just as popular as cable TV is today, alleviating all those problems that DSL and other grounded Internet services cause. It may become just as easy to connect to the Internet as it is to make a call on your cell phone. Goodbye wires.

  • Patrick Danielewski

    New technologies

    Yes, technologies keep changing and new ones emerging, however, every technology has its limitations. Logically, it would be hard to make telephone technology work at very high speeds due to the limitations of the medium. After all, in order to make two twisted copper wires transmit large amounts of data fast, a large compression of the data is necessary which allows for more problematic behavior. This is why I will never understand people’s choice of DSL over a cable modem where the transmission medium has a MUCH larger limit and doesn’t require any type of compression. I do see, however, how wireless technology is destined to prevail since there really is no limit in the medium through which it travels. For anyone interested in the latest technology, check out 802.16
    I can see why Soundtivity hasn’t been quite so reliable, since the wireless technology is still new, the current 802.11 isn’t too reliable, and new better standards are evolving such as the 30-mile-range 802.16. Simply put, I am very surprised Tom Streeter hadn’t considered the overall best cable technology. DSL is simply not stable enough and has pushed the medium past its limitations, while wireless although promising, is simply too new and not yet reliable and developed well enough yet.

  • Pingback: FlowTV | The Problem of Morality in Media Policy

  • Ahhh Broadband

    I still remember when my parents first made the “jump” into the world of computers. As a 12 year old who had been using computers at school for years, I was ecstatic to have this new tool in my home. Then when they were finally convinced to dial-up, the Internet completely revolutionized our home life. My mom and sister were constantly online sending instant messages and e-mails to our distant relatives, and I always had the latest news on video games, music, and movies; dial-up was great.

    Then my school began upgrading to broadband connections. Now, all of a sudden while at school at could access any of this content, as well as much other content at speeds unrealized previously. When I began doing research for classes, or actively seeking audio/video content I was amazed at how quickly the information made its way to my monitor. I absolutely loved it, which made things a little shaky on the home front.

    I would come home ready to work on a project or discover something new on the Internet, but the one computer we had connected to dial-up would always be in use. The struggle for Internet time had become an issue that was hotly debated in our household. We all felt entitled to 24hr access that was not at all possible. Frustrated with the lack of time available and the atrocious speeds involved with dial-up my sister and I began lobbying my dad for better service. Unfortunately dial-up had him locked in for another year and a half. That year and a half was strenuous on us all, but we survived only to move far from the city and any available high-speed Internet connection.

    Luckily at this point I was in college and had nearly 24hr service available at school, but the half hour drive to the nearest campus only reminded me of the horrible inconvenience I was experiencing with computers at home. Since I moved to Austin, and got my own high-speed connection, our small country town has been awarded broadband service. Too little too late for me, but now that all of the computers in my parents house are networked together they have realized the all of the internets potential that formerly was not available to them. They now have the capacity to send 100 digital photos in seconds instead of the previous one every three to ten minutes, talk on the phone, research, and send instant messages simultaneously from multiple computers throughout the house. My parents have always been set in their ways and put off my attempts to technologically integrate them with the rest of the world. Eventually they do come around, but based on the urgings of society, not my heartfelt attempts to offer them something far more efficient and enjoyable.

  • Ubiquitous Computing & Alluvium

    Regardless of speed, internet access is now a necessity. Like probably everyone else that has posted on here, I check my email incessently, read articles on topics I’d never look up in a library, and waste hours upon hours watching funny videos or the latest flash animation. But when the internet goes out, it is a sad and anxious time. I remember sitting at my desktop, Time/Warner’s customer service robot in my ear saying my call would be answered in the order recieved, desperately waiting for the the three lights (recv, sync, & ready) on the Roadrunner box to start flashing green again. It’s the same feeling as when you accidentally leave your cell phone at home. How can I contact anyone? What am I supposed to do for the next 15 minutes before class starts?? Society is growing more and more dependent on the internet, and well, cell phones as well. Nowadays you can call your friend in China and talk to him through your computer’s internet connection, while at the same time, check your email on your phone. Access is available anywhere and at any time. I feel pity when I meet a person who does not have a cellphone, or even worse, a computer. What do they do with their time? How do they ever plan things with other people without, or the “I’m on my way, see you there” phonecall? Maybe I’m just spoiled, but I get extremely uneasy when I get cut off from the web or my phone service. It’s been integrated into my everyday life.

    On a related note, the new speed/efficiency challenge (that especially pertains to our field) is internet broadcasting. For a long while, people have been using “Shoutcasting” to stream video on. You’d probably know what I’m talking about with the mention of the word “buffering.” (Then pause for 20 seconds.) Recently, a new form of streaming, via Alluvium, has been developed. With this advent, an entire video will be automatically downloaded at the start of the stream, allowing for no pauses or breaks in the viewing. While this is now just starting to catch on, it will soon be the way we watch videos online. It will replace Shoutcasting and the burden of buffering in the same way Broadband has replaced dial-up.

  • update 1 year later

    For the lone curious reader, an update: Soundtivity did eventually get me close to their promised speed, but it took them work to both get and keep me there. In the meantime, my local city government has created a municipally-owned fiber-optic telecommunications experiment, and offered to put me in the beta test. As of last week (Nov., 2005) I have a fiber optic cable running into the wall of my house, and it’s giving me an incredibly high-speed internet connection; they’re still tinkering with the system, and have yet to start hooking up the phone and TV part of the service. The saga continues.

    Tom Streeter

  • Reading this for your class at Western University in Jan 2020. Very interesting perspective! We had problems of a similar structure with Roger at my house last month… some things never change, eh?

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