Internet Primer


In order to make good decisions, you must first have good information. In order to decide among the various choices for connection to the internet you must first understand the issues. The best decisions are made with accurate and complete information, but to decide between the various options for Internet access you need to first understand some basic concepts.


The case for the value and usefulness of an internet connection is well understood.  E-mail communication, web shopping, information gathering, remote monitoring of homes and the elderly, school assignments for all levels to mention a few are essential, particularly in the semi-rural environment of the Harbor Inc area.  Less known advantages of the internet are taking advantages of new services such as voice Over IP, Video Conferencing, and Private Point 2 Point networks.  At this point in time, anyone can connect to the internet for the cost of a phone line and an Internet Service Provider (ISP).  This is what is meant by Dial-up Modem Service and represents the minimum in cost and quality.  The issue is what do you want to do on the internet and what is the speed and quality of service needed to do it.  Dial-up is too slow to reap the real benefits of the internet.  On the other hand, if one can pay for it the fastest speeds and highest quality are currently accessible in the Harbor Inc area.  How to help improve the service and lower the cost for internet connectivity for everyone in the Harbor Inc area is an end worthy of some effort because not everyone currently has more than dial-up service.  Currently only about 20% of Americans who have internet service subscribe to services better than dial-up.  In the Harbor Springs School district only about 50% of the students even have a computer at home. 


These problems are not unrecognized as there are currently efforts to form a cooperative for the upper half of Michigan- Northern Michigan Broadband Cooperative.  The Cooperative has the potential to help solve the long-term problems as it promotes infrastructure but a short term solution is needed.


In order to understand the coming discussion and the range of services available, the pros and cons, the cost and availability it is necessary to compare the possibilities.  To do this we need a little vocabulary.


A bit is the smallest unit of data in a computer and has a single binary value, either 0 or 1.  A byte is eight bits that can represent 256 different possibilities to mean a letter, number, or typographical symbol (for example, “g”. “9”, or “!”).  The data transfer capacity on an electronic communication system it called its Bandwidth and is measured in bits per second (bps).  One thousand bps is 1 Kbps (1 kilobit per second), one million bps is 1 Mbps (1 megabit per second), and one billion bps is 1 Gbps  (1 giga bit per second).  Note that computer memory is measured in terms of Megabytes (M or MB).


When describing the performance of a system the bandwidth is often cited. In practice, the advertised bandwidth is not always reliably available to the customer; Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often allow a greater number of subscribers than their backbone connection can handle, under the assumption that most users will not be using their full connection capacity very frequently. This aggregation strategy works more often than not, so users can typically burst to their full bandwidth most of the time.  The best picture to use is to look as the data stream as a pipe with water flowing at a certain rate.  As more and more people draw water the rate at which the individual receives water goes down.  The pipe has only a certain size.  Larger bandwidth can support more users with out impacting an individual user.  Also, the rate at which you can receive data (download) and the rate at which you can send data (upload) are generally not the same with download speeds always faster. Broadband is often called high-speed Internet, because it usually has a high rate of data transmission. In general, any connection to the customer of 256 Kbs (0.256 Mbs) or more is considered broadband Internet.  But one should note, this will get you only the lowest quality video.


One of the great challenges of broadband is to provide service to potential customers in areas of low population density, such as the Harbor Inc area. In cities where the population density is high, it is easy for a service provider to recover equipment costs, but each rural customer may require expensive equipment to get connected. A similar problem existed a century ago when electrical power was invented. Cities were the first to receive electric lighting, as early as 1880, while in the United States some remote rural areas were still not electrified until the 1940s, and even then only with the help of federally funded programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).


Several rural broadband solutions exist, though each has its own benefits, pitfalls and limitations. The benefits most people care about include cost, difficulty, reliability and security. The best way to get broadband is different for different people since people care about cost, difficulty and security differently. A bank would care about reliability and security more than cost.  A bank wants to make sure hackers cant get the information and that the connection is something they can expect to always be available (reliability). A home user is likely to care about cost and difficulty more than reliability. There is nothing that is truly secure. Locks on your house are made to make it harder to break into your house, but a determined intruder can still break in through a window or by picking a lock. Similarly, there is no truly secure computer, just ones that are harder to break into than others.  Each person has to determine their own needs. Options include Satellite Internet, Cellular Broadband, Remote ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), DSL repeater, Cable and Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP-WIFI).


Dial-up Modem Service

Represents the minimum in cost and quality and only requires a regular phone line and an ISP.

ADSL – Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line

ADSL coverage is available to a wide area if the telephone lines have been designed well. As such, it is the most likely choice unless you happen to live somewhere remote, or in an area where cable is available.


ADSL broadband is delivered through your existing telephone line, using a special modem or router. There is no need to have an additional telephone line installed and you will still be able to make and receive calls whilst surfing the web.


If you already have cable TV, or if you live in an area served by a cable operator, then a broadband cable Internet connection may be an option for you.


A cable Internet connection requires a special modem, which is connected to your cable along with your cable TV box (if you have one). Most cable companies offer packages that include telephone and TV channels as well as a broadband Internet connection.


As with ADSL, cable Internet providers usually offer a selection of broadband deals for different requirements.

Wireless (WIFI)

In some of the more remote or rural areas of the US, ADSL and Cable Internet connections may not be available. Increasingly in these areas, smaller Internet providers are providing local coverage using wireless technology of various forms.


For a wireless Internet connection, a small antenna receiving signals from a relatively local source is installed on the outside of your house (much like a TV aerial) and this sends signals to a connection point on the inside, which in turn is connected to your computer. No telephone line or coaxial cable of any kind is required.


Satellite is generally seen as a last resort for people who live in remote areas and cannot receive any other form of broadband Internet. It is available throughout the US and requires the installation of a special satellite dish. There are two types of satellite connection.


The first type is a one-way connection, where you will be able to receive data (view web pages), but can only send data (if for example you want to send an email) by using a dial-up modem through a telephone line.


Two-way services, where data is both sent and received through the satellite dish, are also available, although these tend to be expensive to install with an additional monthly subscription.  Currently,  the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency that is concerned with areas such as ours, does not consider satellite service as broadband.


SDSL – Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line

Some providers also offer SDSL services. An SDSL connection is very similar to an ADSL connection. The difference is that ADSL can download data from the Internet faster than it can upload data, while SDSL is just as fast at uploading as downloading.


SDSL requires an extra telephone line, separate from the one you use for voice calls, and is an option for some that need to send large amounts of data.


Power-line Internet


This has been proposed as a possibility in the future and is a new service still in its infancy that may eventually permit broadband Internet data to travel down standard high-voltage power lines. However, the system has a number of complex issues, the primary one being that power lines are inherently a very noisy environment. Every time a device turns on or off, it introduces a pop or click into the line. Energy-saving devices often introduce noisy harmonics into the line. The system must be designed to deal with these natural signaling disruptions and work around them. Broadband over power lines (BPL), also known as Power line communication, has developed faster in Europe than in the US due to a historical difference in power system design philosophies. Nearly all large power grids transmit power at high voltages in order to reduce transmission losses, then near the customer use step-down transformers to reduce the voltage. Since BPL signals cannot readily pass through transformers, repeaters must be attached to the transformers. In the US, it is common for a small transformer hung from a utility pole to service a single house. In Europe, it is more common for a somewhat larger transformer to service 10 or 100 houses. For delivering power to customers, this difference in design makes little difference, but it means delivering BPL over the power grid of a typical US city will require an order of magnitude more repeaters than would be required in a comparable European city.

The second major issue is signal strength and operating frequency. The system is expected to use frequencies in the 10 to 30 MHz ranges, which has been used for decades by licensed amateur radio operators, as well as international shortwave broadcasters and a variety of communications systems (military, aeronautical, etc.). Power lines are unshielded and will act as transmitters for the signals they carry, and have the potential to completely wipe out the usefulness of the 10 to 30 MHz range for shortwave communications purposes.


What can broadband do?

Now you are in a position to look at what a particular bandwidth will allow you to do.  For comparison purposes let’s use a typical web page download (most actual pages will require more time) and a typical popular song download.  Looking at Table I you can see the inherent limitations of dial-up service and the benefits of large bandwidth.  Even if 8Mbs were available not everyone would pay for the service.  It is a question of perceived value and an individual’s cost benefit analysis.   Table II attempts to compare the various possibilities, pros and cons and compare end user prices.  These prices do not include the cost of developing and providing the infrastructure that allows the service to reach the house or business.  The role that Harbor Inc can play is to support the development of this infrastructure in whatever way they can.  For example, if WIFI were found to be the most feasible approach help in citing the needed towers would be need.


Negatives that may not be clear from Table II include:  In the case of cable which could provide phone, internet and video programming at the same time, you lose local phone service hence local 911 service, unless the provider supports E911.  If you choose satellite service you have a large difference between download and upload speeds as well as a 7 second delay in all responses.  Systems that rely on transmission through the air are subject to problems with interferences.


As you can see the choices for an individual are complex and depend heavily on what is available physically and monetarily.  The choices for support for infrastructure development by local political units and/or Harbor Inc are equally complex for the same reasons.   The development of some system is so important to quality of life in the area that it should not be left solely to market forces.  Unless we all make an effort and push in some direction the time scale for progress is years rather than months.



Further Information:


Local providers:

Cherry Capital Connection; 231.264.9970

Northern Lights Media, L.L.C.; 231.539.8465

Gaslight Media; 231.487.0692