Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY
October 7. 2012 - Question: I live in a very rural area without cable, DSL or the other usual broadband options. How in the world can I improve my Internet connection beyond the weak Verizon 3G connection I use?
Answer: I get this question sadly often -- in the last few weeks, once from a reader quoted above, then from the guy I buy cheese from at my usual farmer's market. And there usually aren't good answers to it.
Hoping that your local telephone or cable-TV monopoly will extend service is unlikely to be rewarded, although Comcast did pledge to extend service to another 400,000 homes as part of its merger with NBC Universal. If a neighbor with broadband lives close enough, however, you can try rigging a souped-up Wi-Fi network to relay the connection; "white spaces" wireless (often, misleadingly, called "super WiFi") running on unused TV frequencies may help with that soon.
The usual option for people beyond the reach of wired broadband is satellite Internet access, which only requires a clear view of the southern sky. Historically, high costs for equipment and the service itself, stringent usage limits, slow connections and the lag induced by the 44,000-mile round trip data must take to and from geosynchronous orbit have made satellite the broadband of last resort.
More recently, satellite services have been offering faster plans with higher data quotas. But you still need to watch the fine print.
For instance, last Monday Dish Network began selling a new DishNet service with download speeds of 5 million bits per second (10 Mbps in some areas, courtesy of "spot beam" targeting of the signal) and uploads of 1 Mbps at an advertised rate of $39.99 a month. That easily beats older satellite services--but if you don't sign up for one of Dish's TV subscriptions, you pay $10 extra. And an "equipment lease fee" adds another $10 a month.
This plan comes with a data cap of 10 gigabytes, but the fine print explains that 5 GB of that limit can only be used between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Plan on downloading those multi-hundred-megabyte updates from Apple or Microsoft overnight.
For what it's worth, a slightly faster, $49.99 service with a 7.5 GB data cap provided by ViaSat's WildBlue operation on a different satellite from Dish's has similar issues with non-obvious costs and data-usage limits. So does the discounted-to-$49.99 "Gen4" access Dish sells under its HughesNet brand. And neither company clearly says how much it will throttle back a connection if you exceed your data limit.
Wireless broadband from a cellular-data service can be another option, but that too often fades out in the countryside. The reader complained of a slow connection that "at times stalls or sometimes even drops."
But the Federal Communications Commission is banking on wireless to fill more of those gaps. In the National Broadband Plan it released in 2010, the FCC proposed to shift its longstanding "universal service" subsidy program from telephone service to broadband while freeing up more spectrum for wireless data by reclaiming unused and underused TV channels, among other sources.
All of these things--expanded cable or DSL deployment, upgraded white-spaces wireless or broader mobile broadband--will take a while to accomplish. In the meantime, you can only hope that satellite broadband becomes a last resort with fewer reservations.
Tip: Find out how slow a site is
Should you blame your Internet connection or a site's poor design for the time it takes to finish loading in your browser? A tool provided by Google for Web designers can give you some solid hints.
Plug a site's address into Page Speed Insights, and this site will grade its responsiveness on a score of 0 to 100 (and provide technical advice that a Web developer can consider, but which will make zero sense to many users).
USA TODAY's site, for instance, earned a score of 85, while NASA clocked in at only 67. Google's own home page, meanwhile, clearly needs some additional work with its 99 score.