Rural broadband: Finding alternatives to DSL and cable

Live in a rural area but need high-speed Internet?

Suppose you want a broadband Internet connection but you operate in a county with more cows than people, and DSL and cable simply aren't available?

Wireless is the solution being embraced by many users in the American heartland who see no reason to wait for their telecommunications carriers to provide service. Specifically, they're turning to fixed terrestrial wireless, and satellites.

"We continue to fall behind other countries in terms of getting broadband to rural communities," complained Scott Lindsay, head of the Rural Broadband Coalition in Washington. The most recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks the U.S. 12th in total broadband penetration. "There are a slew of technologies out there, but it looks like fixed wireless has taken forefront, [with] satellite service being a good alternative in some areas," Lindsay said.

Fixed wireless was the answer for Will Thompson, CIO at Clarendon College, a 1,000-student institution in the 2,000-person town of Clarendon, Texas, 60 miles southeast of Amarillo.

"Except for T1 lines, it was the only choice when we started with it five years ago," Thompson recalled. "And it proved to be faster and cheaper than T1 lines."

Actually, he was lucky to have more than one alternative. While broadband penetration in the U.S. is now 40% in urban and suburban areas, it has reached only 24% in rural areas, noted John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew Internet Project in Washington.

"The main reason for the gap is probably availability," Horrigan said. "However, rural users are adopting broadband at a faster rate than urban and suburban ones."

For increasing numbers of rural users like Thompson, adopting broadband means using fixed wireless. Such service is usually supplied by small, local Internet service providers that rely on unlicensed versions of Wi-Fi that have increased power levels and are tuned to avoid interfering with licensed devices. The subscriber is given a radio and mounts a fixed antenna with a line of sight to the provider's transmission antenna, which usually has a range of six to eight miles.

There are a couple thousand fixed-wireless providers in the U.S., most of them mom-and-pop operations with a few hundred users, explained Tom Sanders, head of The Final Mile Inc., a consulting company in Asheville, N.C. They often barter for antenna space on hilltop houses, otherwise charging between $50 and $75 monthly for as much as several megabits per second of wireless connectivity.

"Every one of the providers say they have more callers than they can serve," Sanders noted.

"We continue to see a subscriber growth of 10% or greater every year," agreed Douglas Campbell, vice president of AMA TechTel Communications. Based in Amarillo, TechTel covers 20,000 square miles in west Texas and eastern New Mexico, and it takes Campbell six hours to drive across the coverage area. In terms of subscribers, TechTel is also one of the largest fixed-wireless Internet service providers, with 18,000 subscribers (including Thompson and Clarendon College) in an area of about 66,000 households. Residential subscriptions start at $44 monthly for 512Kbit/sec., and the fee covers the customer's antenna and radio, Campbell explained.

"There are still many unserved areas -- we are trying to help, but there are capital constraints," he said. He prefers that each of his transmission towers have at least 25 users.

One of the people whom fixed wireless was not able to serve was Mark Haaland, who lives on a farm nine miles from Reynolds, N.D., population 350.

"Dial-up was so slow, because of the bad lines, that it could take an hour to download e-mail," he recalled. "We tried wireless, but trees blocked the signal, so the only real option was to use a satellite service. It's not the cheapest way to go, and it will run slower than cable or DSL, but it does the job."

Haaland chose WildBlue Communications Inc. in Denver, mostly because its modem supported multiple computers. WildBlue has been offering its service for about 18 months and now has about 100,000 users and is adding another 10,000 monthly, said Vice President Brad Greenwald. The company owns two satellites that together could eventually support 1 million users, he said. Its entry-level service is the most popular, offering 512Kbit/sec. downstream and 128Kbit/sec. upstream, for $49.95 per month. The subscriber's dish antenna costs about $300 upfront, and installation is about another $200. (Haaland recalled spending about $600 to buy the ground equipment and mount his antenna.)

"There are about 15 million homes or small offices in the U.S. that don't have access to cable modems or DSL, so we developed this satellite service to reach them," Greenwald noted.

There's also HughesNet from Hughes Network Systems LLC in Germantown, Md. Spokeswoman Judy Blake said the service has about 300,000 users and the number is growing at about 10,000 per month. Residential plans start at $59.99 per month for 700Kbit/sec. download speed and 128Kbit/sec. upload. The hardware costs upwards of $400. Unlike WildBlue, Hughes leases satellite capacity from other carriers.

The StarBand service from Spacenet Inc. in McLean, Va., also starts at $49.95 per month, for 512Kbit/sec. downstream and 128Kbit/sec. upstream, with hardware costing about $300, explains spokesman Jeff Carl. However, the service has only about 30,000 users and, being marketed mostly to businesses, does not claim to be growing, he added. It, too, is based on leased satellite capacity and does cover Alaska and Hawaii.

Clarendon College's Thompson said he didn't consider satellite service when he was looking for broadband Internet connectivity five years ago, because at the time the upstream leg for satellite service was routed through dial-up modems. But in the past two years, cable and DSL have also reached his town.

Indeed, Horrigan at the Pew Internet Project noted that the rate for using fixed wireless and satellite service is the same in both rural and urban settings -- about 5%. As with urban users, the rest of the rural broadband users are nearly evenly split between cable and DSL subscribers.

But if both urban and rural users appear indistinguishable in the statistics, it's probably because, as multiple sources noted, there is no hard and fast way to tell urban and rural settings apart. Even in urban areas there can be residents without cable access who are also too far from a telephone company central office to get DSL.

"We have users here in northern Virginia, close to some of the biggest telecommunications firms, who are without DSL or cable access," noted Spacenet's Carl.

But however they're defined, rural users clearly want to be connected as much as their city cousins. "Many people prefer a rural environment, but the need to find meaningful work is often tied to access to advanced communications," noted Andrew Kreig, president of Wireless Communications Association International in Washington.

Wood writes about technology from San Antonio.

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