The Worst Internet In America
By Clare Malone
Jul 27 2017
To drive the length and breadth of Saguache County, Colorado, is a dangerous undertaking. The roads, at least in spring, are lonely, clear and straight — “drive 30 miles then take a left” is the gist of most map directions. But the views are what can drive a person to distraction, veering recklessly over dotted yellow lines. There are hayfields drowned in water, blue and glassy so it looks like the sky fell into them, football fields full of black cattle standing stock-still like museum statuary, signs along empty stretches advertising meet and greets with the “Happy Gilmore” alligator, and crop planes that totter and swoop perilously over power lines before misting fields so green you think they might have invented the color.
The beauty of Saguache County can be an inconvenient one, though, particularly in the 21st century: It has some of the worst internet in the country. That’s in part because of the mountains and the isolation they bring. Saguache (sah-WATCH’) is nestled in between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan ranges, a four-hour drive southwest of Denver. Its population of 6,300 is spread across 3,169 square miles 7,800 feet above sea level, but on land that is mostly flat, so you can almost see the full scope of two mountain ranges as you drive the county’s highways: the San Juans, melted into soft brown peaks to the west, and the Sangre de Cristos, sharp, black and snowcapped, thrusting almost violently upward to the east.
FiveThirtyEight analyzed every county’s broadband usage using data from researchers at the University of Iowa and Arizona State University1 and found that Saguache was at the bottom. Only 5.6 percent of adults were estimated to have broadband.
But Saguache isn’t alone in lacking broadband. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 39 percent of rural Americans — 23 million people — don’t have access. In Pew surveys, those who live in rural areas were about twice as likely not to use the internet as urban or suburban Americans.
The FCC now defines broadband internet as the ability to download information at 25 megabits per second and to upload it at 3 megabits per second. This sort of connection enables a person to do the things that most Americans with home internet like to do — watch Netflix, play video games, and browse online without interruption even if a couple of devices are on the same connection. For around $30 a month, New York City internet providers offer basic packages of 100 Mbps service. In Saguache County, such a connection is rare; if a household wants a download speed of 12 Mbps with an upload speed of 2 Mbps, they can expect to pay a whopping $90.
This would be less of an issue if the internet weren’t so central to modern life. But taxes, job applications, payroll operations, banking, newspapers, shopping, college courses and video chats all are ubiquitous online. Saguache County’s students are expected to take their state assessments online even though an administrator at one school that houses K-12 students told me that until last year, the internet often went down for a couple of hours or even all day in the building.
The tide long ago turned from paper to digital in American life, and yet the disparities in access to the internet in parts of the country can be stark. Rural communities often face logistics problems installing fiber-optic cable in sparsely populated areas. In Saguache, internet problems are both logistical and financial; the county is three times the size of Rhode Island, while 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Some would argue that the social contract has changed and that fast internet isn’t just a luxury — it’s a right of all 21st-century Americans. If that’s the case, we’re far from ensuring it. Just spend a few days hopping from town to town on Saguache’s long stretches of road.