Rural Technology Experiences

The view from my office window

If you read any of the other Logical Expressions publications, you may know that my wife and I live in the North Idaho panhandle area, about 60 miles south of the Canadian border. It sounds idyllic, and from a lifestyle standpoint, it certainly is. There’s something to be said for an office window that looks out into a 40 acre forested back yard.

Living here has its challenges too. When you move your business literally into the sticks, you learn not to take some of the technological amenities of an urban area for granted.

Running Out of Energy

Take power, for instance. The first winter we lived here was one of the worst the area had seen in twenty years. We lost power frequently because weak trees that had not been challenged by snow load until that year suddenly lost interest in remaining upright. When large trees go down, they tend to take other things with them, like power lines. Our longest outage that year was almost 4 days, right over Thanksgiving weekend. But we were lucky: Other areas of the county were without power for more than two weeks.

Naturally, we went out and bought a generator right away. It isn’t a particularly good one (it’s a Coleman 4KW), but it is enough to keep our refrigerator and our two offices going when "the grid" fails us.

Broadband Blues

Satellite Internet

Another thing a lot of people take for granted is easy access to broadband. In many areas, you have multiple options from which to choose. Even in North Idaho, you often have several broadband options if you live in or near a town. But we live 18 miles from Sandpoint, the nearest town of any size, which limits us to a wireless solution. DSL and cable modem are not likely to penetrate our area for at least another decade. If then.

If you live in our neighborhood and are fortunate enough to have a view of the nearby ski mountain (Schweitzer), you may be able to get wireless broadband (802.11 or cellular). If, your home is nestled into a valley hillside like ours and you don’t even get a cellular signal, your only choice is satellite, assuming you have southern exposure and a clear enough break in the trees.

So, satellite it is. We went with DirecWay as our provider and we are happy with the service, overall. We rarely lose the connection, and the download speed is great (over 1 mbps). Even the upload speed is a usable 90 kbps.

However, in my opinion, satellite is the broadband choice of last resort. Although the upload and download speeds beat dialup hands down, using any "chatty" protocol is an experience in frustration due to the latency. For example, I have to cross my fingers every time I use FTP because eventually the connection gets corrupted and I have to start over. Sometimes that takes a few minutes to happen, and sometimes it happens on the first transfer. Other chatty protocols that work poorly on satellite include any kind of remote desktop, https communications, and real-time gaming. I’ve found that I’m better off using my dialup account for most of these activities, unless I need to transfer a really big file. You can just forget about real-time gaming out here.

The Cost of a Lifestyle

These are some things to consider the next time you wonder what it would be like to work from home out in the woods somewhere. Everything has a price. For some of us, it is still worth it, but I know many of you are out there shuddering at the thought of what you’d have to give up.