Surviving the Internet Desert

Throughout our bicycle ride across the US we’ve frequently experienced sporadic, sketchy, or even absolutely zero Internet access.

We expected this when we were cycling through deserts or mountains. Heck, there typically wasn’t even cell reception. And it makes economic sense that service providers wouldn’t bother to make services available for areas that are essentially unpopulated. As a result, particularly in the west, we often went days without connectivity.

As a result, when we’d reach a town we looked forward to Internet and we were disappointed when restaurants and cafes didn’t offer WiFi. Sometimes because they didn’t have any access themselves. Or, it was such a precious resource that they didn’t share it with customers. Fortunately, the majority, but not all motels, had WiFi. This fact was proudly displayed on their signs, replacing the previous boast of providing HBO. This was a different world from the ubiquitous, high speed Internet access we’d grown so accustomed to in Silicon Valley, where high tech companies like Google and Facebook jockey to be the provider of city-wide free WiFi.

Getting Internet access was sometimes a factor in deciding to stay in a motel rather than camping. (Not quite as compelling as the desire for air-conditioning, a shower, or an escape from mosquitos, though.) We found that campsites that catered to RVs typically had “primitive WiFi” (i.e., super-shitty WiFi). Campsites that catered specifically to tent camping never had WiFi.

When we did get WiFi access at motels/coffee shops/restaurants we often found barely viable bandwidth: just good enough to check email. With bare bones access much of the Internet is largely unavailable. Image-heavy sites? Not happening. YouTube and video links in FaceBook? Unloadable. Complex sites with lots of Web 2.0 stuff happening? Not in this lifetime. Streaming videos? Ha!

During our adventure we needed Internet access for much more fundamental things that simply determining the best restaurant choice. Joy and I used it to plan our cycling route for the next several days based on the amount of climbing, access to campsites/hotels, and weather. We relied on internet access for NOAH weather alerts and that saved our butts a few times (tornados, crazy head winds, ridiculous heat waves, etc.).

We also noticed the lack of Internet in lots of small ways, too. Joy and I rarely have a conversation without one of us stopping to look up or clarify a fact. We normally do that a dozen times each day. We’d grown accustomed to getting an answer almost as soon as we’d asked even the most arcane questions. Without Internet access, however, we had to try to remember what our questions were until we had connectivity. Sometimes days later.

Estimated at ~300 Billion!

Here is a sampling of the questions we needed to write down and then look up. If any of these questions is intriguing, I leave finding out the answer to you, the reader.

  • How do oil wells work? Where do they get their power?
  • What states do beavers live in?
  • Dachshund puppies – are they born all stretched out or do they “grow” into that shape? (Inspired by a sign for free dachshund puppies)
  • How many hamburgers does the average American eat each year? (Inspired by a long, sad stretch where a hamburger was the best option on the menu.) 
  • What should you do if you encounter a bear while cycling? (Inspired by being in bear country for weeks. The short answer is, “You’re screwed.”)
  • When do children learn to lie? (Inspired by election news)
  • When did zombies evolve to start wanting brains? (Inspired by noticing how much road kill was missing a head)
  • What desert plant smells like microwaved buttered popcorn? (Not even park rangers knew the answer to that one)
  • What is the history of toilet paper – when did we switch to using specialized paper rather than the Sears catalog?  (Guess the inspiration.)

Why this really matters

Cycling through vast swaths of Internet Deserts was certainly inconvenient, and sometimes more than just inconvenient, to us. It often restricted our ability to plan and make decisions when trying to decide our route, find places to eat/sleep or figure out if a tornado was heading our way. A poopy short-term experience for us, but we could deal.

More significantly, these Internet access deserts affect the lives of folks who live in these areas in ways that fundamentally impact their ability to learn/teach, to gain access to key information sources (medical sites, for example) or to use online forms for all the kinds of things we all do as part of our everyday lives now. And without that access, it’s hard to make informed life decisions. This is known as “The Digital Divide“and over the years there have been lots of articles, talks, and research papers about the impact lack of good Internet access causes.

The featured photo of this post, which shows a sign saying “WiFi 9 Blocks” was something we saw in New Mexico a few weeks before we started our bicycle ride. The Tourist Information Office (our destination) offered free WiFi. When we reached the building we saw several locals parked outside the building. One of them mentioned that they were using the WiFi to access email and surf the web via their phones. How limiting is that?

In a recent article for the San Jose Mercury News Michelle Quinn wrote that smartphones help fill part of the gap, but:

It’s hard to do homework on an iPhone, look at a spreadsheet or access electronic medical records. You can’t apply to college on a Samsung Galaxy or use one to take an online class. Smartphone banking has a ways to go before it is easy and commonplace. And some data plans cap your use.

It’s a huge issue in most parts of the world and continues to be a big issue in big sections of the US, even California.

This was one of those eye-opening realizations I came to during our adventure. I don’t have any proposed solutions or interesting observations other than to say that the more we travel, the more I see how special our time was in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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