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Darwin, Calif., left behind in evolution of the Internet

Its few residents love the remoteness of the place — except when it comes to the lack of broadband. Even an $80-million plan to extend high-speed Internet to underserved areas will leave them high and dry.

March 12, 2012|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Darwin, Calif. — 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.

PHOTOS: Welcome to Darwin

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.

VIDEO: Life in Darwin

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.

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