This past spring, the lower Columbia Pacific region became part of the wider pandemic story happening across the nation and the world. As adults and school kids retreated to their homes to avoid the COVID-19 virus, overnight the demand for internet access skyrocketed. While people in urban areas likely didn’t feel the strain, rural customers found their already poor internet access often wasn’t up to the challenge. Today, in our series on rural internet access in Clatsop County, we take a look at two of the big internet players here, to see what they have to say about the pandemic and its effects on their ability to serve customers. Joanne Rideout reports.
First, a reminder of what it’s like to be an internet customer in Clatsop County. If you live in town, in the Astoria area, for instance, your choices for internet are simpler: you’re probably a Spectrum cable customer. And while you might have times when the speed isn’t as fast as you’d like, it’s always available and pretty much meets your needs. But if you live just a few miles outside of town, your choices quickly become more limited and complex – and service can be markedly worse.
Rural residents I spoke to for this story series told me about the hodge-podge of solutions they used to get internet access at home.
Some use cell phones – sometimes with help from something called a jetpack. A jetpack creates a big mobile hotspot that allows you to connect multiple devices and go online.
Amanda Rohne, for instance – she and her husband Dirk run a dairy farm in rural Brownsmead, about 20 miles east of Astoria. Dirk is head of the Port of Astoria Commission. They have two young children in school. They get their internet access through Verizon. Dirk attends port commission meetings online with Zoom.
“Well, so we use a Verizon jetpack and we also use our phones as hot spots. And for us it works really well. The speed is, you know, fast enough for him to do his meetings for like an hour. Our only other option for internet would be dialup through Centurytel, because we live too far away from the DSL line. I can see the road where they have DSL, but I don’t have DSL. But I also hear that’s super slow.”
Centurytel became Centurylink in 2009, but long time residents still call it by its original name. The Rohnes are lucky, their farm near the Columbia River, has a good cell signal. But a mile down the road, their neighbors have a poor signal, so the jetpack isn’t an option for them.
Carrie Palenske is a teacher in the rural Knappa district outside of Astoria. Up until a few months ago, she lived in rural Brownsmead, next to Knappa. Then, her family used satellite provider Viasat for their internet connection. It was a big improvement over the Centurylink DSL provided in some areas (but not everywhere) in Brownsmead. She liked Viasat, when it was available, but their plan had data limits. At the time, she and her husband Ben and their elementary school age daughter Lucy were all working from home. Their data limit reset once a month. When they ran out of data, their internet speed slowed way down.
“It’s a struggle to make sure we have enough data on our satellite internet which is better than and faster than the DSL speed out here. So I’m happy that we have satellite because it’s very reliable. It’s just that we have to be careful about not both being on, like streaming conference calls at the same time. … We reset on Thursday so we’re all kind of waiting until…”
Since our interview, the Palenskes have moved into the city of Astoria. Carrie said they were amazed at the easy availability of comparatively fast internet access there.
To find out more about satellite internet, I talked with Evan Dixon. He’s vice president and head of residential services for the Americas at Viasat. He said the company has been in business for 30 years and has never seen challenges like this.
“I can say that just in the industry, every broadband business across the world is seeing demand like they have never seen before. For people that were able to survive without internet connectivity at school or at work and maybe decide not to adopt it at home suddenly they now need it at home, and so we are seeing that spike.”
Viasat is seeing many new subscribers and also increased use by existing customers. On a typical day before the pandemic, internet usage during the day was moderate, but high in the evenings. Now, Dixon said, the peak that used to occur only in the evenings happens all day long.
“So we’ve gone from about a two or three hour peak busy period to a 12 hours peak period. It’s skyrocketing all day. We’ve seen a 65 percent increase in the amount of users that use the internet during the day.”
To handle the increased demand, Viasat looked at the highest needs for work and school at home for their customers. They ended up prioritizing apps like Zoom and Google classroom ahead of entertainment applications like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Dixon said he’s aware that customers don’t understand the limits of satellite technology.
“And there’s a sense that we’re in some way holding back a resource that we have greedily, which couldn’t be prevented, so satellite broadband is a bit unique to other different types of broadband, but satellites have a fixed amount of capacity that we’re able to produce. And when we launch that satellite in the air we send it 22,000 miles up in the air. We know exactly how much capacity it has to give out to x number of subscribers. And then you have to divide up a city amongst those subscribers in a way that is fair and in a way that if you put too many it is too large.”
He said there’s a limit to how many customers they can serve without sacrificing performance for people who want to stream video, games and movies. The limits are just the realities of physics. Every few years the company is able to launch another satellite with more capacity. Viasat is building a satellite now that it hopes to launch next year that will greatly increase its ability to serve more people. Dixon also said the customers who are experiencing service slowdowns when they reach data limits should consider upgrades from older “legacy” plans, to newer Viasat plans that have no limits on data.
Early in the pandemic, Viasat was one of a number of internet providers who signed on to the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge, in which participating providers would not cut off customers for nonpayment, would waive late fees, and make its hotspots available to any American that needed them.
For people who get their internet through their landline service, Centurylink is the telephone and DSL internet provider here. In rural areas it has historically provided service that’s slow and often intermittent, or simply not available to serve outlying customers.
When I tried to interview someone at the company, their spokesperson declined an in-person interview but answered my list of questions in email. They said it wasn’t economically viable for the company to serve rural customers as effectively as urban internet users, and said rural residents should instead look to local providers. Centurylink also signed on to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. The company also donated $25,000 to PCs for People, a national nonprofit providing affordable access to technology through the reuse of refurbished computers.
The Keep Americans Connected Pledge expired June 30.
I’m Joanne Rideout in Astoria.