During the dark ages of internet communication, people had to have their computer dial a phone number to connect to a service provider’s computer and listen as the two machines made funny “handshake” noises while connecting. The data rate was so small that websites could look no more complex than a coloring book page. And forget about streaming anything.
The light of broadband didn’t start dispelling that darkness in South Jersey until about 20 years ago. Since then, development of technology has accelerated, yielding commonplace miracles such as computerized mobile phones, satellite navigation and cheap high-definition television at an ever faster pace.
The spread of new technology is inevitable, but so is the unevenness of its availability. The affluent can afford much better devices than low- and moderate-income families. And areas with more customers get offered more and better services.
These two characteristics work against much of rural South Jersey. The region has nothing like the population density of the north and lower average household incomes. As a result, broadband choices are fewer and some rural residents have to make do with DSL over copper wires and spotty cell phone service.
A Wildwood bike shop owner recently said an untimely internet outage cost his business $5,000. Rural residents have said they have to move to the edge of their properties to make a mobile phone call. And even the old wired landlines become unreliable when it rains.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew has pressed the state Board of Public Utilities and phone and internet providers to improve service in the region, but state leverage over national and global corporations is quite limited these days. Where once there was a regulated telephone monopoly, now there are lots of telecommunication competitors free to offer services or not.
The bike shop owner summed up the problem nicely: “They don’t want to invest in these towns because they can’t make any money.”
Van Drew’s efforts seemed to pay off when Verizon announced in December it would serve Weymouth Township and Estell Manor with fiber-optic broadband. The senator said the goal should be to provide fiber-optic service throughout South Jersey.
The hot trend in broadband, however, seems to be wireless rather than wired (including with optical fibers). Just the past month, Verizon and AT&T announced they would offer wireless service with unlimited data, including at speeds capable of carrying high-definition video. Soon wireless broadband is likely to offer a strong challenge to cable, fiber optic and DSL.
Perhaps Van Drew and state regulators also should try to make it easier for wireless providers to give their networks better broadband capability.
Either way, we’re confident relentlessly better internet service is coming to South Jersey … just not as quickly as to the urban crowds up north.