Living on the dark side of the digital divide
While the rest of the state zips around the Web, a few remote areas of Washington lag years behind, crawling slowly but inevitably into the Internet Age.
Seattle Times staff reporter
GLACIER, Whatcom County — Digital shock.
That's how the locals here in the Mount Baker foothills describe what Seattleites — accustomed to 24/7 instant communication — experience when arriving for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer.
Cellphone service? Nope.
Internet access? Kind of. But quite a different sort than found in the big city.
In recent years, when Forbes magazine has put out a list of "most wired" cities, Seattle has been 1, 2 or 3. We're used to streaming a Netflix movie anytime, downloading gargantuan files and having a smartphone as another appendage.
But the future — even the present — hasn't quite arrived in parts of Washington. Remote, often rugged-terrain areas with small populations remain on the dark side of the digital divide — meaning everything from working from home to checking the latest Facebook posting to booking a flight online goes ... a little ... slow. Real ... slow.
"We have people coming in here and saying, 'Oh, my God, we don't have Internet! The kids are freaking out!' " says Rebecca Andersen, who, with her husband, Court, owns the Wake 'n Bakery.
According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, just under 2 percent of the state's population, about 136,000 people, can only get Internet access at basically dial-up speed.
These gaps in broadband coverage are about more than the convenience of watching Netflix movies, says the state's Broadband Office.
They're about small businesses being able to use the Internet to market their services, students being able to take an online course and individuals in isolated areas having a level playing field with competitors in the cities, says Wilford Saunders, who heads the state agency. No level field, and the populations in those small towns will keep evaporating, says Saunders.
It's not worth it for the Comcasts to string in cable, or the Verizons to put up cell towers.
That's why beginning in 2010, and through 2015, the federal government will spend more than $174 million in this state on broadband infrastructure, bringing it to the sticks.
The state says many of the sparsely populated areas with broadband "gaps" also are agricultural lands. These days, farmers are also increasingly online — from irrigating using real-time, Web-based monitoring of soil moisture to selling their goods on the Internet.
In Marlin, Grant County, a town of about 50 also known as Krupp, broadband service finally arrived four years ago when the town chipped in $1,000 to place a repeater atop a grain elevator. The locals then were able to pick up a wireless Internet signal.
About 1 ½ years ago, one of those locals, Lena Hardt, took her specialty-grain business onto the Internet. She owns a 240-acre farm and contracts with five other farmers to grow spelt, emmer and einkorn — all among the oldest cultivated grains.
"We're getting inquiries from Canada, back East," she says. "And it's saved me a lot on gas. Now I don't have to drive 60 miles to check my email."
It takes patience
In Glacier, there is always dial-up. You remember dial-up, don't you, when you could mow the lawn by the time a Web page loaded?
Or residents can subscribe to a satellite Internet service, which offers broadband. That, too, comes with limitations.
Just on the eastern outskirts of the town is Chair 9, a restaurant that advertises pizza, cocktails, and these magic words: "Free Wi-Fi."
It subscribes to an Internet satellite package, and the Wi-Fi is so popular that in the mornings, before the place opens up, people are in the parking lot, sitting in their cars with their laptops and smartphones.
But the thing with satellite Internet service is that the various packages — ranging from $50 to $350 a month — have bandwidth limits.
Every time you get on the Internet, you're sucking up bandwidth, and each package has a daily bandwidth quota (streaming movies is a surefire way to reach that quota). Then the satellite service drastically slows your connection.
At the restaurant, "If you get a bunch of kids on smartphones, or when you have people from Amazon or Microsoft or whatever coming in to do their work, the connection basically goes down to a trickle speed," says Pete Cook, who, along with his parents, Kirby and Connie Cook, owns Chair 9.
Then there is "signal latency."
It's a 44,000-mile round-trip for a signal to travel from your computer, up to the satellite and back down again.
That adds at least half-a-second to your computer talking to a website.
Steven Scott, 36, a mechanical engineer who designs tools, knows firsthand how important that half-second is.
He just moved back up to Curlew, population 113, in the northeast part of the state, from the Bay Area in California. He wanted to be closer to his dad.
"My family is here. My dad is still young, and I wanted to do fun things with him," says Scott.
But that meant taking a pay cut as his San Carlos firm accommodated his new, slower Internet location in Ferry County.
Before, Scott could remotely log onto his office computer — and work as if he were there. Now in Curlew, using the Internet satellite, he says that when he moves the mouse on the work computer, "half a second later it moves and I hope it's in the right place."
When you're doing technical drawings, having a cursor on the right place on the screen is kind of essential.
"It's just a crappy way of doing things," says Scott. He flies to California every four to six weeks to make sure he keeps up with his workload.
Change is inevitable
The $174 million in federal funds being spent in this state on broadband infrastructure comes from the Recovery Act passed by Congress in 2009 to stimulate the economy, and from the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
So far, the money has funded such projects as bringing broadband to 6,000 homes in Okanogan County, and to the Quinault Indian Nation and the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe on the Olympic Peninsula.
The state also has gotten federal money for setting up public computer centers — such as a $1.3 million grant to train 12,000 people in the Spokane area. Residents can go to the centers to learn basic computer skills, such as how to use a Microsoft Word document to put together a résumé.
There is little advantage in connecting to the Internet, says Saunders, "if you don't know how to use a computer."
Digital change is within reach of Glacier, he says.
Then the people here will remember how it used to be.
A life like this:
Jimmy Brite, 43, works as a server at a local restaurant and gigs around here with a couple of bands.
He lives on 10 acres with his wife, Luca Williams, and their son, Brandon, 12. His wife has a Rolfing studio for manipulating muscle tissue.
Brite says his family has managed just fine with dial-up, without the ubiquitous smartphones found in Seattle, and without a dish antenna for TV.
"I guess we just didn't advance with the technology," says Brite. "We also don't have a gas station and a lot of services. What brings people here is what keeps them here. The beauty of the place. It's quiet. It's slow. Certain people appreciate that," says Brite.
Brandon did save up money to buy video-game gear. The family TV viewing consists mostly of renting DVDs at the local grocery store.
"He gets one hour of screen time a day, whether it's videos or the Internet," dad says about his son.
And the rest of the time?
"I like to throw the football. I mountain bike. There's a bunch of trails around here. I'm used to the outdoors," says Brandon, who, by all appearances, seems quite well-adjusted.
It is with mixed feelings that some greet the inevitable. The Andersens now have Internet satellite service at their home because they plan to market souvenir items from their Wake 'n Bakery such as mugs and sweatshirts.
But they don't offer Wi-Fi at the bakery because, in part, they don't want to ruin the atmosphere. Here, they say, people actually talk to each other.
"My wife and I were on vacation on the Oregon coast, and if you went to a public place, it seemed like every single table had someone calling, texting. I'm sure glad we don't live like that," says Court Andersen.
He says he's also noticed something about wired-up Seattleites who get here on a Friday, and go into digital shock.
"They leave on Sunday, saying they had the greatest weekend," Andersen says.
And probably are tweeting about it as soon as they reach Interstate 5.
Gotta have that fix.
News researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org