Broadband in the Boonies 2019

Some 18 years ago, I moved from the Silicon Valley suburbs to the wilds of the California coast, and have questioned that move for not a single moment. The area is gorgeous, the natives friendly, and then there’s the beach that inspired me to take up the camera and spend time learning its workings.

If there was ever an insect in the ointment it would be the lack of broadband options. As in dearth. As in “Well, you’re the one who chose to live in a rural setting.”

At the time it proved rich fodder for a series of Macworld articles umbrellaed under “Broadband in the Boonies.” In the good old days, we country bumpkins had little more than dial-up and satellite connections to feed-in the outside world. And, considering that streaming media wasn’t yet really a thing, it was annoying, but hardly intolerable. And surely, with time, conditions would improve with cable, fiber, line-of-sight… anything.

And it did to the extent that a little over a decade ago, DSL was introduced to our pleasant coastal valley. Okay, it topped out at 5 megabits per second down and 640 kilobits up, but because I used a third-party provider rather than AT&T, I didn’t have to deal with a data cap. And when the connection crapped out, I could talk to a human rather than be buried in a phone tree.

And that’s the way it’s been ever since. Until now.

I was recently informed by my provider, DSL Extreme, that they were extremely sorry that they could no longer service my address. The lines of copper haven’t changed. The big funky box-o’-cables down at the junction is still standing. And, as far as I know, DSL Extreme is still in business, so I can only assume it’s a Davey and Goliath thing where Goliath would like its circuits back, thank you very much.

Which left me scrambling for another way. And, as it turns out, that other way is no better than when I was finally granted DSL all those years ago.


We have two cable providers in the area—Xfinity and Charter. From what I’ve been able to learn, the two compete to see which is more vocal about not servicing my area. Half a mile down the road, Charter’s cable turns right rather than left—meaning that the very few people on that end of the valley enjoy luscious broadband while the very few people on my end are SOL. My understanding is that were I to pungle up a few tens of thousands of dollars, one company or another would string the required cable and deliver it to my home.



Again, ha.

For those who prefer a remote lifestyle, line-of-sight radio broadband is catching on. A representative of Etheric networks appeared at a recent town hall meeting, laid out a plan for mounting a dish on a nearby mountain-top tower, and planting a couple of repeaters in the valley so that most of us would have something to shoot at from our rooftops.

But it’s pricey at over a thousand dollars per person to get the thing going, and you need big buy-in from local residents. The more people who chip in, the less it will cost. Regrettably (though I love them dearly) my neighbors are largely retired and are concerned only that their AOL works as consistently as ever. Convincing them to give up the red envelopes in favor of video streaming and consider the resale value of a home without reasonable Internet access has been challenging.

Of course there’s still satellite. Of course it still sucks. For those who haven’t experienced it, I can sum it up this way—expensive, barbaric data caps, and far slower than modern broadband ought to be.

Back to satellite?

But that’s where I figured I was headed. You see, AT&T DSL services only a portion of my valley. That big box down at the junction has enough circuits for half the population and the company has no interest in providing more. Once I lost DSL Extreme I figured that avenue was lost to me. I checked every other DSL provider in the business—including AT&T—and each claimed that they couldn’t service my address.

But before returning to satellite, I thought I’d give AT&T a try; arguing that since I was already taking up a slot in the box, why not just switch me over? Yes, like everyone, I’d heard the horror stories about AT&T’s service, but a lot of those stories came from the early broadband days. Surely, after years in the business, the kinks had been ironed out. 

So I made the call, and to my great delight the sales rep told me I could make the switch.

The call with the charming sales person went something like this:

• AT&T would switch my service over from DSL Extreme. I needn’t do a thing.

• A technician would arrive the following Wednesday to set everything up. Sorry, but yes, you need to be home for this. Unfortunately, we can’t say when the technician will arrive so plan to be available all day.

• Yes, there is a data cap of 150GB a month, and you’ll be charged $10 per 5GB you go over. What, you average around 250GB a month and your old service was unlimited and less expensive? How about that.

• But hey, it’s better than satellite, right? See you next Wednesday.

That was two weeks ago. The reality is this:

• AT&T cut off my DSL Extreme service a day early, before allegedly activating my AT&T service.

• No one showed up on Wednesday.

• I called AT&T around 4PM to find out why, sat on hold for 2 hours, and gave up.

• Called AT&T the next morning, got shuffled around from sales to tech support, and was eventually told that no one bothered to put in a work order for the installation.

• I suggested that maybe I could just do it myself with my existing modem. An hour with a tech proved that was impossible.

• “Hey, no problem, we’ll send you one of our modems by Tuesday and we’ll call you to walk through the installation over the phone on Wednesday. Sorry you’ll be without Internet for another week. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

• My wife and daughter freak out.

• The modem never arrived. 

• The setup call was never made.

• I dug up a different modem and called tech support.

• “Sure, I can help you. Grab your cell phone, open the browser, and enter this address…”

“I don’t have cell service where I live. If I did, I’d use that instead of DSL.”

“None? Do you have another device with data service?”

“Why yes. But unless you’ve erected a cell tower in my neighborhood in the last ten seconds, it can’t access the Internet either.”

“Wow, no cell and DSL. You really must be remote.”

“I’m 2.5 miles from a major highway.”


“So, can I take my laptop somewhere I can get on the Internet and register the modem so you can complete the connection?”

“Absolutely. Just go to such and such an address, fill out the form, call this number, leave a message with your user ID and callback number, and someone will call you in half-an-hour or so to complete setup.”

• Three days later and counting: No call.

• I’ve lost two days of work waiting for nothing, though it has given me time to write this.

• My wife and daughter continue to freak out.

• Once again, it’s back on the phone with AT&T DSL support. “We promise you, Christopher, we’ll send a technician with a new modem on Tuesday, and he’ll make it all work.”

• I refrain from holding my breath.

Back in the day, when I used to churn out this kind of stuff for a living, I tried to find the broader theme. In this case I might have turned philosophical, suggested that one makes these kinds of trade-offs in life—beauty or broadband, nature or Netflix.

But I’m out of that business. I’m now just a guy who thinks, “What the fuck, people? It’s the goddamned 21st century in the richest state in the richest country in the world. Broadband and cell service aren’t a luxury any longer. People’s livelihoods and leisure rely on them. There’s money to be made in providing real broadband to rural areas. Get your shit together.”

And AT&T? For fuck’s sake… really.