My wife and I moved our family out to rural northeastern Georgia in the fall of 2012. We had romanticized the notion of raising our children away from the hustle and bustle of suburban Atlanta for many years. Pure Web, our web services company could in theory work from anywhere if we had internet. After some searching for a home we picked one in the town of Royston Georgia. Being ‘tech savvy’ I asked the real estate agent if high speed internet was available at the home we were interested in and was assured that it was.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that high speed internet in Royston means something entirely different than what I had grown accustomed to in Atlanta. Once installed our new high-speed internet could only pull 1.5Mbps on the download and .68Mbps on the upload, something I had not seen since 2005!
In town we were cord cutters, using our internet connection to stream video content which allowed us to turn off our cable TV and using VoIP for our phone system. Not having high speed internet made us get Dish and we had to get actual phone service from AT&T. Both of which were costlier.
I couldn’t work the way I envisioned and ended up having to drive to places to ‘hop on’ their WiFi network. Many times, I drove to Athens, the closest big town, to work out of a Copy Shop because driving there to send large files was quicker than attempting to send them from my home office. Even our children were impacted as they found it tough to do homework and turn in assignments because there was no real internet at home. Not too mention my youngest son melting down when we couldn't play Curious George on demand.
Part of the reason we moved out to the country was to simplify our lives and to save money and now we were paying more than ever before all because of lack of internet. It blew my mind that this was even an issue, I mean they have internet in space. Why couldn’t they get high speed internet down my dirt road in rural Georgia?
If this was hard for me, an IT professional, I started to wonder how this lack of access impacted others. My wife and I began to speak with our neighbors, business owners, people at church, strangers in the park and one thing became clear: the internet out here did not work. It wasn’t fast enough to stream Netflix, you couldn’t work from home, you couldn’t take classes online, and you couldn’t use VoIP technology. The only thing that seemed to work with the incumbent ISP was the billing system!
This started my adventure into Fixed wireless technology and caused Paladin Wireless to come into existence. We were born out of necessity for internet service that worked. It has been an amazing journey so far and I have learned so much about the far-reaching consequences incurred by communities which have no access to high speed internet. Some of these are easy to guess at while others come as complete surprises.
What bothered me the most (still does) is that technology exists right now to fix this. If the incumbent provider was unwilling to fix our internet issues than we would. It started out simple enough, put some radio equipment on towers and provide internet service to end customers (last mile). This got us talking to our city officials as we pitched our plan to spin up this community driven ISP. At first, they were dubious but being the persistent fellow that I am they agreed to give us access to their two water towers and the rest as they say is history.
Once we got up in running in Royston it seemed that all the surrounding towns wanted our service as well. After setting up networks in these areas more places heard about what we were up to and wanted us to come to their community. Today we get requests from all over the southeast and we meet with so many municipalities, counties, and communities telling them the Paladin story and how by working together we can fix this issue. It is a message of empowerment for these rural communities. We don’t have to wait on the incumbent provider, we don’t have to wait on the Federal government, we don’t have to wait on some new balloon thing from Google. We can fix this together and fix it right now.
Today we trade in information and the population groups that have access to this information always does better than those that do not. Entire communities are being held back because they can’t access this information. It all comes back to the internet. The internet is the conduit that all this information flows through.
I began to study the correlation of average household income across the state of Georgia and level of access to high speed internet. I found that most of the underserved markets also have the worst access to broadband. For instance, where we now live, the average household income is $24,573 (source https://datausa.io/profile/geo/franklin-county-ga/). The average download speed in Royston is 5.52 Mbps. This is 84.6% slower than the average in Georgia and 559.8% slower than the national average (source https://broadbandnow.com/Georgia/Royston?zip=30662#).
This inequality doesn’t just exist in rural markets, but it exists in many places in where an income divide occurs. You can have giga-bit service in many parts of Atlanta but once you cross ‘the tracks’ you will only have access to slower and more expensive service that utilizes older technology. Many times, this service will come with long contracts and caps on the amount of data you can transfer each month. Furthermore, these data caps can cause the subscriber to pay a penalty fee if they go over which can lead to an internet bill of several hundreds of dollars a month.
What ends up happening is some of the lowest income earners ending up paying the most for internet access. To compound this the internet service is slower, less reliable, and has penalty charges to allow the ISP to curb usage.
This is important to my wife and I, it is important to the Paladin team. We are on the frontlines working with communities all over the region fixing this problem. I firmly believe that this is one of the biggest barriers to economic development in rural Georgia. I believe that not having high-speed internet chokes a community out. The internet is more than just social media and videos. The internet is opportunity.
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