Here's What Happens When No ISP Serves Your Home

It's a big problem for a surprising amount of people, and the solutions aren't always great.

Daniel B. Kline
Daniel B. Kline
Oct 3, 2015 at 12:00PM
Consumer Goods

The vast majority of the United States has access to broadband Internet service.

Even those not served by a cable company provider like Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) or a telephone company like AT&T (NYSE:T) have alternate service choices. Still, while investment has been huge, the Federal Communication Commission's Eighth Broadband Progress Report shows that some work remains to be done.

The Report finds that approximately 19 million Americans -- 6% of the population -- still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population -- 14.5 million people -- lack access to this service [...] The report concludes that until the Commission's Connect America reforms are fully implemented, these gaps are unlikely to close. Because millions still lack access to or have not adopted broadband, the Report concludes broadband is not yet being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.

My wife and I own one of those homes not served by traditional providers, and while we are not in a remote location, the solutions available range from barely acceptable to dreadfully bad.

How do we not have Internet?
Earlier this year, my wife and I purchased a small vacation condo in West Palm Beach, Florida. Given the population density and the fact that West Palm is a pretty big city, it did not even occur to me to ask whether the property was serviced by an Internet provider. That proved to be a blunder, because it isn't.

In our case, the area is teeming with ISPs, with most of the region serviced by Comcast and/or AT&T. There are even a few lesser-known providers in the market, but none of them will come to my condo.

That's because our community owns its own television equipment, bypassing the traditional providers. Because of that, none of the ISPs have been willing to wire the complex for Internet alone. Some of my neighbors do have AT&T-provided Internet, but the company won't bring any new lines in.

Until that changes (negotiations with both major companies are under way), I'm left without any traditional options. That's not great, but it's perhaps worse because I'm a writer who works from home, making Internet access more a tool of the trade than a luxury item.

What are my options?
While I wait for condo board politics to decide whether we ultimately make a deal with Comcast or AT&T (a process that will take 3-6 months), my options were few. I could use a mobile hotspot, or attempt to get satellite Internet service. Neither would equal traditional broadband for speed, but either would, in theory, give me Internet access.

A mobile hotspot. Source: Verizon.

Mobile hotspot: For my last few visits, I have been using a FreedomPop mobile hotspot. This low-cost option costs me less than $10 a month for 5GB of access. That's light on the wallet, but mobile hotspots operate by pulling in the Internet over the channels used by cell phones. At best, that results in fairly slow speeds. In this case, it's about equal to dial-up because Sprint, which provides the network for FreedomPop, has poor service in the area. I'm online, but page loads crawl, taking anywhere from a few seconds to more than minute.

Satellite Internet: If you live in a rural area not served by a traditional provider, you can, in most cases, get satellite Internet. This is a serviceable but not ideal option, because it comes at a relatively high price, and it has data caps. For example, the company I spoke with offered me 5GB at "up to" 10Mbps download, and 1 Mbps upload for $49.99 a month with a two-year commitment. That's faster than a mobile hotspot, but much slower than the legal definition of broadband (25Mbps down, 3Mbps up). It's enough for many things, but not real-time gaming or watching HD movies (which would be hard with the data cap anyway).

Dial-up access: As outdated as the technology seems, it's actually still possible to purchase dial-up Internet service. On the plus side, it's cheap, with packages from one-time giant AOL starting at $6.99 a month. Other than price, though, there's nothing good about dial-up. It's very slow and is really a last resort.

What did I do?
I attempted to have satellite Internet installed, but doing so requires a clear view of the southern sky, and my property does not have that in a place the condo board would allow installation. That left me stuck using a mobile hotspot -- at least until the condo association makes a deal with a provider.

My situation has an end in sight, but for millions of people, the only choices are the inferior service offered by satellite or hotspots. And, of course, a hotspot is only as good as the wireless service in an area, and satellites, though they can mostly solve the problem for many people, don't work in all cases.