There was a sort of faltering lurch towards modernity in my neighborhood this week. The phone company dropped a bulldozer off on the side of the road, and the guys with the orange spray paint and plastic flags did their thing. For a couple of years, we have been "on the schedule" for getting upgraded Internet service. Fiber-optic lines reaching out to the frontier. They did the utility marking last fall, and got everybody's hopes up. Several huge TVs were bought in anticipation of being able to receive Netflix movies over the high-speed Internet. Then winter came and the bulldozer packed up and left.
But they are back with equipment, spools of colorful conduit, orange flags, and even highway signs warning the motorists (there aren't any this time of year) that there is work being done. Or thought about. I'm beginning to think they are serious this time, but won't know for sure until the porta-potty arrives. Once that is on site, it's game on.
Living where I do, it would be unreasonable to expect completely up-to-date technology. There really is a digital divide, and there's no question which side of it I live on. It's been 30 years since I built my house. When I first tried to get a telephone, they said there was no line capacity left, and that they couldn't make any new connections. I would have to wait for somebody else to surrender their phone. That seemed unlikely, but the woman at the phone company assured me that they had their eyes on several people who were in frail health and whose lines could become available any day. In my case, they suggested I keep an eye on a specific neighbor, a sweet old lady who had been my Sunday school teacher years before. I still feel a little guilty about it, but whenever I saw her at the grocery store, I was a little disappointed by her condition. She seemed pretty hardy to me, and was buying flour in 25-pound bags. Was it that wrong to cough in her direction?
Ultimately, they put in a bigger cable and I got a telephone of my very own. Not even a party line. The neighbor was still kicking several years later.
Television was another story. The county spends a lot of money on a UHF system that probably isn't used by a dozen people these days. But that used to be the only option. If atmospheric conditions were just right, I could get a snowy picture on Channel 2. That was with a roof antenna the size of a 747, and an amplifier that generated as much heat as the woodstove. It was a pretty unsatisfying experience.
Then there were satellites. I never went for the gigantic Montana-state-flower version, mostly because I would have had to clear-cut the yard to find a place to install it. When the small dishes became available, I was all over it. From snow on one channel to 150 channels overnight. And there's still nothing on.
The Internet was less dramatic. The first dial-up service was so slow that it was easier to drive into town and talk in person than send an email, but so was everybody else's. It's improved significantly through the years, just enough to discourage switching to satellite Internet. As more of the world is on broadband service, websites have become jammed with video stuff that takes more bandwidth to work. So even while my service is speeding up, the need for speed is growing faster. The gap is widening.
It takes roughly three times as long to download a video from YouTube as it does to ultimately watch it. Movies from NetFlix take less time to make than it would to deliver them to my TV online. The result is that I live in a state of deprivation when it comes to sneezing-kitten videos. That may be a good thing, but now even the classified ads for old tractors are larded up with video ads that slow it to a granny-gear crawl. News sites are about impossible these days.
Hope springs eternal, and the odds of them getting the conduit installed seem high. It's complicated. They have to get across the river in two places, which in Woodland also means they have to get permits from two counties. The chances of Wasatch and Summit counties agreeing on the same set of plans for the span across the river are about nil. But there are actual spools of conduit right there on the edge of the road. Signs say, "Men Working." It could happen.
Who knows, one of these days we might even get electricity that stays on for whole days at a time. I might have to look into that whole indoor bathroom thing.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.