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Rural broadband: Finding alternatives to DSL and cable

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

By Lamont Wood
January 3, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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