Out here on the Information Cowpath

Column by Hal Walter

Communications – March 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

I was dragged kicking and screaming into the cyber age by magazine editors who wished me to deliver my articles to their e-mail addresses (among them, I hate to say, the honchos at this very publication).

Now that I’m there, I’m still kicking and screaming. Not because e-mail is a bad way to transmit my work — it isn’t. It’s because some of us in Central Colorado live on an Information Cowpath, rather than the Information Superhighway.

To get connected, I signed up with Internet Express in November and had it up and running by December. It wasn’t at all easy to figure out. I’ve been working with computers for about 15 years and I still had to call technical support more times than those people care to remember — especially since I canceled service with those folks shortly after receiving the first bill.

The problem was that I was paying for an 800-number surcharge so that I didn’t have to pay long-distance tolls to connect. That amounted to about $27 on top of the monthly charge for the service.

I learned that another service, Rocky Mountain Internet, was available in the area and that it offered a local call to Cañon City to connect, and, although the monthly fee was a few dollars more, it offered more connect time. So I signed up.

Then the first serious snowstorm of the season hit, and, probably not coincidentally, we started having trouble with the telephone line. A whining, come-in-Tokyo style pitch and static hiss would be followed by a dead phone line, which would stay dead for two seconds, or maybe two hours, and then come back on in a purely random fashion.

When the phone first started acting up, I figured it was a neighborhood-wide deal, that someone had called to complain and that the phone company had rushed right out to fix it. I was quite wrong and the phone trouble continued.

Finally, I called the repair service for our telephone company, PTI, and detailed my trouble — like the line going dead right when my e-mail was transferring, or just as I had tricked an editor into buying an essay like this one. Timing is everything in the meager existence of a free-lance writer.

It was about this time that Rocky Mountain Internet had some trouble with passwords, and for days I was unable to log on to send and retrieve my e-mail. So it really didn’t matter too much that my phone still wasn’t working right. People who were cut off generally called back and said, “What the hell’s wrong with your phone?” And I figured if it ever went out during a real emergency, I’d end up owning the phone company.

The PTI operator filed a repair notice, but the troubles intensified the next day, so I called again. The operator looked up the case and the report concluded that the repair was not made because the repairman had been unable to locate my house. Surprisingly, I remained pleasant to the operator while thinking: “They can’t find my house to fix my phone, but they sure know where to send the bill each month.”

Speaking of the bill, it is way too high. Especially for this kind of service. It costs me a little over $42 monthly, including taxes, to have a phone plugged into the wall in my house. We’re not talking about any extravagances here. No long distance, call waiting, call forwarding, caller ID or anything like that. I’m charged about $20 more than folks who live right in town.

But hey, I get to call to the Cañon-Florence-Penrose Clusterplex and Prison Development Community toll-free. Before I signed up with the new on-line service, I had rarely an occasion to call the half-dozen or so folks I know in that calling area, including one who is doing time there. The phone company should at least let us call Pueblo or Salida, or both, for free.

At any rate, I gave the operator directions to my home as well as my phone number — just in case the repairman happened to be lacking this vital bit of information — and settled in for a weekend of absolutely sporadic phone service. On Monday the phone rang and it was a PTI repairman. He told my wife that he had changed an electronic card in our system but that it was hard to fix “something that isn’t broken.”

Mary assured this fellow that the phone indeed had not been operating properly. I then showed great inner strength and refrained from making the phone call that I really wanted to make.

The trouble, of course, continued. So I once again called the service operator and I told her the entire story from the beginning, ending it with the quote from the repairman. The strong implication was that I was done fooling around and wanted the damned phone fixed pronto.

That evening, while riding my mountain bike in a brisk breeze, I spied a telephone repairman working on the box, in the dark, at the top of my road. I coasted home and tried to check my e-mail. The connection was broken in the usual static-filled manner. Almost immediately the phone rang. It was the repairman, who was extremely helpful, polite and courteous.

Different dude or different ‘tude? I don’t know. He said that he had been listening in on the last call — a discomforting thought considering some of the twisted conversations that take place on my phone line — and he had actually heard it cut out on my modem.

He changed the housing on the phone line, then called back and told me to call if I had any more trouble. And so far, I haven’t.

But I will. Last summer we didn’t have service for several days and people trying to call our number were told they had reached a number that was disconnected or no longer in service — the same message that is played when a customer hasn’t paid his or her phone bill. Only that wasn’t the case. That time I had to drive up and out of the little valley in which I live, so that I could reach the phone company by cellular phone, which doesn’t work here either because of poor reception. I had experience at this as well — two summers ago our phone was out for nearly a week thanks to lightning strikes, and I used a cell phone then to nag.

A colleague has the misfortune to live in Colorado Springs, down on the Front Strange. While he has the choice of several online services with a local call, and a phone that works for less than $20 per month, he also has neighbors who are primarily militiamen, gang-bangers, and religious extremists. And I’ll never retract that statement.

So when I turn on one of the two television stations we get here, and see the Macintosh ads about how these kids are going to end world hunger and give everyone a free house by unleashing the power of the Internet, I just have to chuckle. If they live in Central Colorado’s Info Cowpath, they’ll be lucky if their parents can afford a phone. Or perhaps they’ll be communicating with tins cans linked by waxed string. That’s how I did it in grade school — it worked and it didn’t cost $42 a month.

Hal Walter occasionally manages to communicate from rural Westcliffe.