Rural Internet – Your Options When Buying a Property

Getting Rural Internet

Getting away from the hustle of everyday work is why many of us aspire to own recreational property.  The quiet tranquility of the lake cabin retreat, the solitude of a deer stand, and the camaraderie of camp are all reasons to escape the most insane trap of modern life:   the internet.  Yet there are perfectly good reasons to seek out broadband internet at your rural retreat.  Some of those reasons may be entertainment, running a surveillance camera system, and becoming more necessary these days, being able to work remotely.  Contrary to popular belief getting broadband internet to your rural property  isn’t always impossible but it can be tricky.  Let’s look at the options.


Before we get into a discussion about providers, we need to define a few terms that will be necessary to determine the differences between the different ways of getting internet.  Speed – This is how fast data flows to you and is usually measured in megabits per second (Mbps).  Remember that speed, as does data, flows in two directions:  down and up.  Down speeds are usually the most looked at stat here since the vast majority of data for residential users flows down to the user, however up speeds are important too, especially for those using video conferencing services.  Latency – In very simple terms, latency is how quickly you receive a response when you make a request from something on the internet.  As an example, if the internet service is a sprinter, and speed is how fast that sprinter runs, then latency is how fast that runner reacts to the starter’s pistol and gets out of the blocks.  Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms) and can range from low single digits to hundreds or thousands of milliseconds.  High latency can make your internet experience frustrating and in some cases such as video conferencing, high latency will make what you’re doing impossible.  Data Cap –  A data cap is a limit on how much data a subscriber is allowed to consume over a given time period (usually a month).  Providers may handle a subscriber going over their data cap in different ways.  Some may halt service until the beginning of the next billing cycle, others might allow you to continue using data at normal speeds but bill you extra for the data overage (this can get costly in a hurry), yet others might continue providing service without extra fees but at the same time turning your speeds down drastically.  Finally, some providers have a data cap in the rule book but don’t impose any penalties if you go over it.  These are usually accompanied with fine print that says if you use so much data that it affects the companies ability to provide service to other subscribers then the company can impose a penalty.  


DSL, Cable, and Fiber


The big three of broadband internet are DSL, cable, and fiber optic service.  Most often available in more densely populated areas, they should not be immediately dismissed when looking for internet service in rural areas.  If you find cable or fiber service is available for you then that is probably your best bet.  If DSL is available, make sure you ask some questions.  DSL service degrades the further down the line you are from the central station and if you are too far away you could end up with service that gives you low speeds with high latency resulting in poor service and frustration.  What’s more, DSL relies on well maintained telephone lines and equipment and in many parts of rural America, the phone lines aren’t up to the task of providing good DSL service.


Fixed Wireless/aka WISP


In many areas that are underserved by the traditional means of getting internet, there are fixed wireless providers, otherwise known as wireless internet service providers (WISP).  These providers are almost exclusively small businesses that serve a very specific or limited area such as a town or small city and the surrounding area.  WISP’s work by providing internet service by radio.  The providers broadcast usually from a high point on the landscape or from a tower, receiving antennas are then placed on or near your home or cabin with line of sight to the broadcasting tower.  Under perfect conditions, the wireless connection can be miles long, however real world conditions at your site will determine how strong of a signal you will get.  Line of sight is critical for WISP service and even trees and leaves will affect your service.  WISP’s tend to be reasonably priced compared to other types of wireless services.  If you have a WISP in your area you should give it serious consideration, just know that whether it will work for you will be largely dependent on geography and your location in relation to the provider’s broadcast antennas.


Cellular Service


You carry it around in your pocket everywhere you go.  Internet provided through your cellular provider covers most parts of Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.  When 4G/LTE service is available speeds and latency are usually acceptable and allow you to do almost everything you would need to do.  The problem is cost and data caps.  Cellular internet service can be reasonably priced, however the tradeoff is usually a low data cap.  Higher data caps will raise the cost of your service considerably.  This might not be a big problem if you are only at your rural property a few days each month, however for service that needs to always be on or if you are living at your property full time, then be prepared to burn through your data cap quickly.  Many people find that for a household, even with the best of cellular internet plans, they hit their data caps within a couple of weeks, leaving them to turn off the service for rest of the month to avoid costly overage charges or using degraded service that is all but useless.


Recently some national providers such as T-Mobile and Verizon have rolled out services specifically intended for home internet use.  Reviews I have seen are generally favorable however these reviews tend to be from people using the service in more populated areas where cell signals are strong, which we know isn’t always the case in rural areas.  


Satellite Providers


Satellite internet is usually the last resort for rural internet.  This is because despite being widely available across North America, it is relatively expensive with low data caps, relatively low up speeds, and high latency.  This is the result of the nature of satellite service.  Satellites are expensive to put into space, must run internet service through a small number of satellites, and are tens of thousands of miles up in space resulting in high latency.  


The Answer May Be At Hand…


A few years ago SpaceX announced their plans for launching a new kind of satellite based internet service provider.  Their concept was to use thousands of smaller satellites in a low earth orbit which would improve both speeds and lower latency.  Last fall this new provider, known as Starlink, opened up a public testing period for some parts of northern North America, including Minnesota and Wisconsin.   Although their network isn’t fully built out with around one thousand satellites in orbit out of a planned twelve thousand, initial reports from some of those taking part in the testing are very positive with many reporting speeds of 100Mbps down and 30Mbps up with low latency and some comparing it to a wired internet connection.  Costs are relatively good as well.  Although there is an initial cost of $500 for the necessary equipment to receive the service, monthly charges are $99 with no data caps (at least right now).  While no system is perfect, many in rural America are excited to see Starlink come online and expand over the next 18 months.  


With the internet making inroads to our recreational lives, and for some a necessity to rural living, finding reliable high speed internet is becoming more and more of a requirement when looking at buying rural properties.  For those of you that do need it, your options are no longer an impediment to buying the property you want.  Although not always ideal, options do exist and with Starlink being launched  a true broadband internet solution may be coming to a rural home, lake cabin, or deer camp near you soon. 

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