Here on the shoulder of the information superhighway, smartphones turn stupid, streaming videos shrink to a trickle and a simple download drags like a flat tire.
Darwin is a former mining town cloistered in the high desert mountains between Death Valley National Park and the China Lake naval weapons testing center. Finding it isn’t easy — a sign that marked the turnoff from California Highway 190 was stolen recently.
In Darwin, there is no food, gas or lodging — or any businesses, for that matter. There is one stop sign. People emerge from their mobile homes and reclaimed miner’s shacks shortly after 11:30 each morning and walk to the post office to greet the mail’s arrival.
A sign at the edge of town announces Darwin’s population as “50 or so.” It’s actually about three dozen, and they are outnumbered 3 to 1 by abandoned cars. There are retirees, artists, loners, eccentrics — independent souls who’ve accepted that the price of living in California’s tranquil outback is a 90-mile drive to the nearest shopping center.
“We’re a little more than rural,” said John Rothgeb, 67, who has lived in the desert since the late 1970s, first in his van before settling down in Darwin. “Frontier is more like it.”
But the 21st century frontiersman needs more than food, water, shelter and elbow room. He needs connectivity. He needs high-speed Internet. And the federal government is spending billions to bring it to him.
Darwin is emblematic of the nation’s digital divide — the disparity between those with broadband access and those suspended in the technological amber of the 1990s, with dial-up connections to the Web.
In 2000, just 3% of American adults used broadband at home, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Today, about 60% do. Only 3% use dial-up.
The difference in performance is like that between a bullet train and a steam locomotive.
Want to stream movies on Netflix or video-chat on Skype in Darwin? Forget it. Check out Wal-Mart’s weekly sales flier? Schedule an hour. Peruse the latest funny-cat videos on YouTube? The incessant buffering might induce a seizure.
Want to surf the Web while talking on the phone? Well, you can’t.
“I understand that you have to give up certain things to live in a beautiful area like this,” Rothgeb said. “But I didn’t move here to get away from everybody.”
A survey last year of major cities worldwide found Algiers, the capital of Algeria, to have the slowest average Internet speed.
Darwin’s is slower by half.
“There’s a general frustration to the point of madness,” said Kathy Goss, 70, a writer and musician who moved to Darwin from San Francisco nearly two decades ago.
Goss channeled that frustration into a song she recorded in her studio — a converted cargo container next to her home.
I’m a dial-up girl in a broadband world
I wait all day in front of my display…
No rapid-fire bidding for things I need on EBay
A PayPal transaction can take me half a day…
It’s an isolated world for a dial-up girl.
Faster satellite access is available in Darwin, but those who’ve tried it complain it’s prone to weather hiccups and comes with daily data allotments. People want the unfettered, all-you-can-consume buffet of broadband.
In recent years Goss, Rothgeb and others in Darwin have waged a dispiriting battle to bring broadband to town. They’ve begged their local telecommunications provider, Verizon. (Sorry, but it doesn’t pencil out financially.) They’ve pleaded with Inyo County officials to intercede. (Sorry, we have no leverage.)
The same dynamic kept electricity from reaching rural America a century ago — it didn’t pay for power companies to string lines to far-flung places where they would serve few customers.
Broadband is this century’s electricity. And the government wants to expand the nation’s digital footprint the way federal subsidies brought power to every hamlet and holler under the Rural Electrification Act, enacted during the Great Depression.
The 2009 economic stimulus package included $7.2 billion to extend broadband Internet to underserved areas. More than $80 million was awarded to a California public-private partnership to build a 553-mile fiber network connecting Barstow, Calif., and Carson City, Nev., along U.S. 395 in the Eastern Sierra.
The Digital 395 project, targeted for completion in mid-2013, would bring “middle mile” broadband infrastructure to communities such as Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, now served by an overtaxed, unreliable system that’s the modern equivalent of tin cans connected with yarn.
In theory, after the government helps build the expensive middle mile, private companies will have an incentive to supply the “last mile” to customers.
Problem is, Darwin needs more than 35 last miles.
“For the main providers, there will never be enough return on investment,” said Doug Thompson, president of a regional planning agency, the Desert Mountain Resource Conservation & Development Council, which is working to identify underserved pockets in an area of California the size of Maryland. “Out there, no one is going to help you. You got to help yourself.”
The road to Darwin shoots southeast from Lone Pine, skirting the alien-looking salt flats of Owens Lake and boring into a country of dry washes, Joshua trees, abandoned silver mines and 1,000-year-old creosote bushes.
Cross a ridgeline, and the snow-covered Sierra in the rear-view mirror disappear — along with the mobile phone signal.
Darwin, founded in 1874, was the hub of a vast silver and lead mining district, a place known for its brothels, saloons and shootouts. A century of booms and busts later, the mines were closed and Darwin was hanging on by a thread.
That’s when it was rediscovered by a different sort of prospector: aging hippies and artists from around Big Sur. Among them were sculptors Gordon Newell and James Hunolt, known for their collaboration on the Haupt Fountains, which frame the view of the White House from an adjacent park.
That spirit remains today in Darwin. Amid the junk piles and slanted buildings is an incongruous gallery of public art.
There’s the “Peace Cannon,” a.k.a. “Darwin’s Missile Defense System,” made from old mining equipment with a bouquet of plastic flowers in its muzzle. A yard full of Hunolt’s abstract white marble sculptures. A dozen massive slabs of black dolomite arranged in a circle and connected by a roof of steel pipe, built by Newell’s son, Hal, and dubbed “Halhenge” by locals.
Distant Darwin calls out to a different kind of desert rat — a dreamy sort of drifter, an escapist who is still engaged.
Judyth Greenburgh, 47, and her husband, Pierre Valeille, 58, moved from the Bay Area to build their dream home in Darwin — a shelter made from a pair of shipping containers dug into into a hillside, beautifully appointed and filled with art.
“I think there’s something very clear about being in Darwin. The air is clear, the views are clear. You can pick and choose how you want to live,” said Greenburgh, a London-born former advertising executive. “But living remotely doesn’t mean you have to go backwards in time.”
It does when Greenburgh takes on freelance projects. Large files take hours to load. She can’t teleconference. Emergency runs to Lone Pine to access email are as common as Darwin’s phone service is unreliable.
“A lot of people I do business with don’t know I’m working from here,” she said. “I don’t know what they’d think of me, living underground in the desert in a shipping container…. I just deliver.”
Without broadband, Darwin is a kind of mirror image of computing’s Moore’s Law, its tentative connection to the outside world receding as fast as information technology advances.
The weathered Darwin Post Office, whose busted windows are covered in plywood, is a stark example. It’s one of nearly 4,000 offices targeted for closure beginning this year as the U.S. Postal Service struggles financially under the Internet’s boot.
“So, not only are we being excluded from the information superhighway, we may also be kicked off the Pony Express route,” said Goss, the “dial-up girl.”
If there is hope, it can be found a few miles west of town, down a bumpy old mining road to where a wild mustang with a deep cinnamon hide and jet black mane seems to be leading the way to a ridgeline from which Darwin can be seen in the distance.
Darwinites have dubbed this rocky mound D.B. Hill — Darwin Broadband Hill. From here, Rothgeb says, a microwave radio relay station could conceivably connect Darwin to Lone Pine and the coming Digital 395 broadband infrastructure.
“All you’d need is some batteries, a parabolic antenna. You’d need a bag of cement and a pole with a solar panel on top,” said Rothgeb, who said he has a degree in physics and once worked at the Point Mugu naval air base. “We’re not asking for anyone to put it up and maintain it. We can do it ourselves.”
The frontier ethic at work, a digital-age barn raising.
“This could be a pilot project,” Rothgeb said. “We’re a test case. If you can get broadband to Darwin, you can get it anywhere.”