Life at 100 Mb – How I Broke into the 1%

I always knew that someday I would make it into the 1%. I have been aiming to be a part of it since the day I arrived off the boat with just a suitcase in my hand. Unfortunately, I am not talking about my adjusted gross income,  which according to the IRS still puts me right amongst the riffraff, or for the true 1%, “rif et raf,” meaning  “one and all” in French.  But, now that I have 100Mb broadband speeds to my home, I can boldly claim to be part of the new 1% internet glitterati, which is almost as good.

100mb speed test result

100mb speed test result

If you don’t believe that internet speed is the new status symbol, replacing both the BMW and paid-off mortgage to let people know that you have arrived, just look at how the Washington liberal elite are making the National Broadband Plan their new priority. The current administration has looked at rural America, and seen how we fat cat country folk have been gorging ourselves on broadband, building “elite,” “premium” and “unnecessary” fiber optic networks to sparsely populated areas, while the more deserving cosmopolitans in the great cities of this nation languish on archaic, dilapidated copper networks that the Big Telecoms have not bothered to update since the 50’s. Consequently, city folk struggle to get 3Mb speeds in many cases. The average broadband connection in the United States is only 6.6 Mbps downstream, according to Akamai’s latest State of the Internet Report. To correct this gross injustice with some smart social engineering, the administration has declared, nay—decreed, that 100Mb speeds must be the goal for broadband to urban areas, but that 4Mb is good enough for simple rural folk. There may of course be political motivation behind this, due to the demographic distribution of where the current administration’s votes come from, but, regardless, it is clear that even at the very top of the Ivory Towers, they now recognize that to have arrived you must have 100Mb speeds.

It wasn’t easy for a poor immigrant like me to break into the 1%. Like many people in that other elite 1%, it may in the end have come down to a lot of luck, and being in the right place at the right time. The first thing I had to do was move to an area served by a rural telecom with the funding to build out their fiber optic network, and then unwittingly build a home so remote, so far away from the existing copper network, that the only option was to break out a strand from their main fiber backbone and bring it directly to my home. In this way my new house became the first in Idaho to have fiber to the home. This event was published in the Idaho State Journal back in 2006. At the time, I was cruising on the fastest available speed of 12Mb, which was unprecedented back then. A couple of weeks ago I ordered our newly available 100Mb speed package. But, although I now had that speed to the fiber optical network terminal on my home, my old reliable Linksys router simply could not handle the awesomeness of those speeds. The maximum output to my computer, Xbox and other direct-wired ethernet devices on my home network was only about  35Mb. As for the wireless devices like the Kindle and Droids, forget about it. Clearly the router was holding me back, so it had to go.

So, I consulted with my friend Jeremy Smith, who is also my neighbor and boss, and one of the few people I know in our small town who is a bigger internet geek than me. He showed me his Cisco E2000 router, which has the rare feature in a consumer-grade router of having Gigabit ports. I found a refurb model on Cisco’s website for only $39, so it was a no-brainer to upgrade to a new router. As an important side note, this E2000 is not Cisco/Linksys newest router—it’s an older model. They now have a lot of fancier ones with the ability to broadcast multiple guest networks at once and such, but they didn’t think to build Gig ports into them because, after all—who caters to the politically incorrect 1% anymore? But, the Gigabit ports are the key. If you are subscribing to higher speeds and not getting the full potential out of your internet—that is the first place you should look. Regular 10/100 ethernet grade ports will not get you to 100Mb. The second I plugged in my new Cisco Gig router into my network, I was able to get the full 100Mb download speeds to my wired devices. My upload speeds were only set to 5Mb on purpose, because that is the current residential upload offering here in Idaho, but in theory, over fiber, Direct Communications has the ability to deliver the full symmetrical 100Mb up and down.

My next dilemma was, now that I have arrived, what do I do with my 100 Mbps internet connection? I have faster speeds than 99% of the country—I need to do something important online. So, naturally, the first thing I did was take a screen shot of my speed test and post it to my brothers to make them jealous, because they still live in speed-deprived metropolises like San Francisco and Salt Lake City . I learned this trick from our customers on our corporate facebook page, who have shown me the importance of posting speed tests online. The thing about having obscenely fast speeds is that the speed, just like making even more money for the financial 1%, becomes an obsession—it becomes necessary to keep running speed tests just to make sure you are still in the 1%. So, that was also an obvious way to use my connection—run more speed tests and pat myself on the back each time.

The latest national report on bandwidth usage in the USA from network solutions provider Sandvine, says that the average household now uses about 52GB per month, or about 81 hours of streaming video, and that Netflix is responsible for 33 percent of all downstream traffic. As already stated, I have never wanted to be average, and over the past couple of years, I would estimate that I have been personally responsible for at least 2% of all download traffic in the USA due to my Netflix usage. We dropped out satellite years ago when we figured out Hulu was free and Netflix also had free streaming.  But, now that I am in the 1%, it’s time to step up my streaming video usage. Using my elitist training in statistics and standard normal distribution, I calculated that if the national average was 81 hours of streaming video, (guessing a generous standard deviation of 20 hours) to become part of the streaming 1%, I would only have to consume about 128 hours a month of streaming video. That is just over 4 hours a day, which really is not a lot of online video, especially by my family’s standards. I use that on my Kindle over breakfast.

So, I looked to become a little more exclusive, but even to be a one-in-a-million consumer, you only have to watch 178 hours a month, or 5.9 hours a day. Clearly, America is not watching enough online video—the bar is currently very low. Our baby alone is probably using that much up each day just watching Dora on Netflix. She is more like a one-in-a-billion consumer of internet media. This sounds good, but is probably not something to put in Parenting Magazine.  Perhaps to feel more like an elite 1%, we should do something more extreme, like put an internet-enabled TV in all of the bathrooms–luckily I already took the precaution of wiring our Jacuzzi tub with ethernet for just such an emergency.

Of course, the real advantage of more speed today is the number of devices you can connect and stream to at the same time. In my home we have an Xbox, a Wii, a Roku, two desktops, some laptops, a couple of smartphones, and a tablet. That’s only about 8 devices. I know people who have a lot more devices than that in their homes, especially if they have a lot of teenage kids. If the new primetime at home consists of Mom catching up on The Bachelor on her iPad as she runs on the treadmill, while Dad is watching reruns of Shark Week on Netflix, and the kids are on episode 103 of SpongeBob on the Xbox, that is going to require a very robust, constant feed. Family time is just not what it used to be when everybody was staring at the same screen, but multiple screens require multiple IP streams into the home, and that is where we as the 1% truly shine. I sometimes hear customers complain that they can’t watch Netflix and use their VOIP phone at the same time, and I can only shake my head in pity, because they are only subscribing to 1.5Mb speed. If I am to fulfill my responsibility as part of the 1%, I clearly need to invest in even more screens, and I need to keep them all streaming simultaneous, whether anybody is watching them or not.

I have noticed with the financial 1%, that it is difficult for them to fathom how regular folks live. After a while of being rich, they tend to assume that all people live the way they do. They will say things in conversation like: “I don’t understand why you are going camping for your family reunion. Why don’t you all just go on a cruise like a normal family?” Hopefully I will start to become that way with my elite internet service. For example, I already just assume that everyone watches ESPN3, Hulu, Netflix and orders new releases on Amazon Instant Video like I do, or at the very least make use of remote Slingbox at an undisclosed location. I question why the masses are still wasting their limited income on old-fashioned satellite, or worse—visiting that bacteria-infested Red Box. But, I recently tried to watch a BYU game on ESPN3 at a relative’s house in Salt Lake City using my remote access account, and it was an absolute nightmare—not even worth watching over their 4Mb internet connection. The resolution and quality adjusts to your internet speed, and this was so pixilated that I could barely make out the opposing teams colors. I am used to watching ESPN3 on the Xbox at home in full HD, with no buffering, and a crystal-clear picture even better than HD satellite, because they use more compression in their digital feed than our direct internet feed does.

I am probably never going to be in the financial 1%. In fact, I suspect  I don’t even know anybody who is part of that 1%. But, I am finding it’s not easy being part of any kind of 1%, and I’m beginning to feel a slight empathy for them because of our shared experience. There’s the taunts, the derision from co-workers, the protests and the whining from regular folks complaining about their lesser service, the threat of government redistribution of bandwidth hanging over our heads, and the boredom of having unlimited resources at your fingertips. I can’t even enjoy the mobile data on my cell phone anymore—it is ruined forever for me. How could I ever go back from 100Mb? I will never be able to move into a house without fiber again. My options for relocating are going to be extremely limited from now on. Sometimes I just miss the old fashioned phone—it is tiresome having to dress up for video-conferencing all the time. I’m trying to be a good representative of our elite super-broadband caste, but I don’t play games; I don’t look at porn; I don’t download or upload anything illegal. I don’t even Bit Torrent. I wonder what the proletariat would do with 100Mb? Even though it means I will just be one of the masses again, we are going to have to give 100 Mb to all of them someday. Hopefully by then I will have 1 Gig speeds.

Directcom Completes Arbon Fiber-to-the-Home Project

This spring, Direct Communications engineers completed the upgrade of Arbon Valley from traditional copper telephone lines to Fiber-to-the-Home, enabling every resident in Arbon to receive broadband access.

The company’s fiber to the home rollout in Arbon began in the summer of 2009, and since then, Directcom crews have been working around the clock, laying fiber optic cable to all of the homes in the Arbon Valley. Even the very remote homes, from those miles up in the mountains to down the valley, can now receive better high-speed internet service than is available in most cities in the USA. The company began with Arbon because this exchange area had always been the most difficult to serve with traditional DSL over copper, and thus had the fewest broadband subscribers.

Direct Communications buried 158 miles of fiber optic cable in Arbon Valley, bringing fiber to about 90 homes.

Matt Farr, Engineer and Operations Manager stated: “Arbon was a good starting point for us because it was so open, the construction was straightforward, and there weren’t a lot of other utilities to worry about running into. Also, we had a lot of customers there in Arbon that simply could not receive any internet signal before, because the farms and homes were so spread out. Fiber was the solution. It’s been good to hear customers tell us things like: ‘We tried streaming Netflix for the first time ever last night—that was pretty cool.’”

Matt Farr, Engineer and Operations Manager for Direct Communications in Idaho, shows the new Calix ONT (Optical Network Terminal) that is installed on the side of a home to convert the fiber light signal to Ethernet and phone service.

There is no resistance in the fiber optic cable, unlike copper lines, so the signal can travel infinitely futher, because it’s light, not an electron flow. With fiber, Directcom can now serve more remote customers in rural areas like Arbon, who live many miles away from the central phone office with broadband products like ethernet, VOIP, video conferencing, home security systems, remote appliance management, and other IP-based apps, which will be vital to the future economies of rural areas. Fiber optics will open up whole new markets of people who previously were too far to pick up a DSL signal over copper.

Farr related that the residents of Arbon had been extremely cooperative during the construction, often helping out the crews, which had helped the project go smoothly.

“The farmers would let us park our equipment in their sheds or shops overnight so that things like the water trailer wouldn’t freeze; they would let us fill up with water from their pumps—the whole community was just really helpful. Larry Fitch and Monty Evans made room in their sheds for us on many a cold night.” He related that people were so excited to get internet service that they would go out of their way to help get the work completed quickly.

“Once, at the end of the season, we were stopped by a really bad snowstorm, and a resident from Garden Creek drove out in the snow to pick up our fiber splicer, and all his equipment, on her personal snowmobile, so that we could complete the fiber splicing at their home.

We had people working in some very remote areas in Arbon, and sometimes we would run out of gas. Ken Estep once came out when we were in trouble and gave us a full tank of gas from his farm tanks.

I also want to thank the County Road Crew for all their help—they were extremely responsive in issuing all the road permits and easements we needed, and were very easy to work with—we were able to coordinate our fiber and road construction schedules—we couldn’t have completed this project without them.”

Directcom used local Arbon electrician, Cody Evans, to help wire the homes internal communications lines so that they would be ready for a fiber ethernet connection, and also to connect the homes power to the fiber terminal battery backup. Unlike the old copper network terminal, the fiber electronics (called an Optical Network Terminal, or ONT) on the side of a home, needs a power supply, and that required new electrical wiring in most cases.

A friendly Arbon dog- photo by Jason Garner.

Lucas McHargue, Construction Supervisor, said he remembers those years working in Arbon consisting of long, sometimes lonely days, and each home they connected had a story to it. “I remember times when the snow was so deep on people’s driveways that even the backhoe couldn’t go through it, and we would have to move forward bucket by bucket, as I cleared the snow away. We met a lot of interesting people out there, and a lot of different dogs—some friendly, some not so friendly. People would call into the main office after we left their home and say: ‘Those guys deserve a raise,’ which I agreed with.”

Jason Garner, Rockland and Arbon Exchange Manager, who spent three years travelling to Arbon each day during this project, and personally spliced the cable to a lot of the homes, feels a real sense of accomplishment in completing the enormous job there. “We had a lot of good times together as a crew—it was good to be part of a team, all working together towards a single goal, and those years really drew us together. I want to thank everyone on the crew who put in so many hours to get this done, including Brent Moss (now retired) Lucas McHargue, Steven Robinson, Marshall Ralphs, Nathan Taysom, Allan Jones, Tim Lee, Brendon Mingo, Phil Pratt, and of course the techs back in the office like Brad Medinger and Austin Turley, who turned on the ONTs remotely, and so many others—this was a real team effort.”

Garner reported that one of his favorite memories from his years working in Arbon was getting to know each homeowner personally by name. “We were in every home. We met a lot of good people.  I always used to wonder how Brent knew every customer by name, and now I know—because he put in all the copper to those home decades  ago. Now it was my turn to meet them all during this fiber upgrade.”

Moose seen in Knox Canyon during daily commute to Arbon- photo by Jason Garner

Garner said they saw a lot of wildlife during the commute over the mountains between Rockland and Arbon, including his closest ever encounter with a moose.

Besides the direct access to high-speed internet from Direct Communications that will bring the benefits of faster broadband to residential customers and anchor institutions like Arbon Elementary School, the fiber will benefit the community in many other ways Directcom has connected fiber to two cell phone towers in the valley, which will increase coverage and data speeds for people using certain cell phones. Fiber in an area means better communications for everyone.

The Arbon area’s first telephone lines were laid by local farmers, who asked former Rockland Telephone Company owner, Joseph Lee May, to acquire the lines back in the 1950’s. He was able to connect the two exchange areas together using copper lines hung on poles. Arbon and Rockland are now connected by various buried fiber optic lines that run right over the mountains separating the valleys, and Arbon will become part of a route that transports a lot of data traffic around southeast Idaho for various major carriers.

When will the rest of Direct Communications customers be upgraded to fiber?

Farr explained: “We have a 5-year plan to basically convert all of our exchange areas from Bear Lake to Rockland to 100% fiber to the home. Arbon is complete. We started on Rockland this year, and will be completely upgraded to fiber over the next 2 years there. Bear Lake is the biggest project and that will take longer, but we already have a few subdivisions there completely converted to fiber, including The Reserve and Cottle Communities in Fish Haven. This summer we also buried new duct to about 30 homes in Canyon Estates in Fish Haven, and we hope to complete splicing the fiber there by the end of this year.”

Fiber optic cable carries an all-digital signal, which is better suited to today’s digital communication devices. Also, there is no interference from electric lines or magnetic fields like you experience with copper, so the signal is clearer, which will result in a better conversation and data transmission. Even lighting strikes, which can be transmitted by copper cabling, is not transmitted by Fiber-optic cable.

Having fiber to a home is a great modern feature that can increase the functionality and value of a home. In fact, having Fiber to the Home could increase the value of a home by as much as $5,000, according to the Fiber-to-the-Home Council *.  Fiber could be a great economic leveler for rural residents.  The homes in Arbon now have the same advanced connectivity as the most high-tech building in any major financial district in the world.

Calix ONT card that is installed on the side of a home to convert the fiber light signal to Ethernet and phone service. Note how a CAT5 network cable will plug directly into the ONT for an internet connection without needing a modem or any other equipment.