Look Homeward for Wireless Providers

The national plan for supplying wireless Internet in rural areas needs to push local partnerships. Franklin County, Virginia, and a small tech company have the customers to prove it.

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The way policymakers and telecom lobbyists in D.C. talk, it seems that wireless is the salvation technology upon which all of America’s broadband dreams rest. To buy into this thinking, unfortunately, buys into a stagnant broadband future for many rural communities.

Wireless is not inherently a weak option for rural communities. There are areas of the U.S. where no rational business case can be made for fiber networks, and wireless subsequently proves valuable. Franklin County, Virginia, is one that proves wireless can carry the load better than some may think.

The problem with Washington’s vision is the lens through which it projects this vision. It’s a lens shaped in large part by giant wireless providers such as AT&T and Verizon. The Dynamic Duopoly that threatens to control 80% of the nation’s wireless Internet access has become a major force in influencing federal broadband policy. It’s important that rural communities understand how their broadband interests are not necessarily well served by these providers’ wireless technology and business models.

AT&T and Verizon are national giants that are notorious for picking over the best markets and refusing to service many of the communities that have the least and need broadband the most. Monica Webb, Co-Chair and spokesperson of Massachusetts community co-op WiredWest, observes, “Private providers just cherry-pick the best subscribers and offer empty promises to the rest of us. Then, when a smaller provider goes into a town the big companies ignored, Verizon comes in and undercuts the competitor on price.”

The view between Five Mile Mountain and Shooting Creek in hilly Franklin County, Virginia. Supplying wireless Internet access is complicated with this terrain.

Contrast this with Franklin County and its wireless Internet service provider (WISP) B2X. The county, covering 721 square miles, is situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The terrain is hilly and rocky. There are communities with reasonable concentrations of homes and businesses, but this rough landscape and an abundance of wooded areas separate those populated places from each other. In 2004 the local economy wasn’t great. In short, this was an area incumbents were not likely to serve anytime soon.

B2X, on the other hand, is a local company that stepped in that year committed to bringing broadband to as many county residents and businesses as possible wherever they were. They started out serving 98 residents and five businesses. Now B2X serves thousands of residential customers and hundreds of businesses.

A foundation on shifting sands

If history is any indication of a company’s future performance, rural America may very well find trusting its broadband future to large incumbents is a vision built on shifting sand. Verizon is a case in point. After making national headlines for its plan to bring fiber optic service (FiOS) to many parts of the U.S., the telco reversed itself when sales didn’t materialize as planned and sold its already-built wired infrastructure to Frontier, another service provider.

In particularly high-profile mode, Verizon publicized its promise to partner with Fort Wayne, Indiana, to deliver highspeed Internet access. Fort Wayne was one of those mid-sized cities Verizon turned over to Frontier, which promptly promised big price increases. Since the promise of partnership didn’t survive the sale to Frontier, Fort Wayne no longer has a legal partnership position from which to bargain. How much faith should small communities put in big companies that abandon markets with ease when they discover there are no more profits to be made?

Sandie Terry, Franklin County’s CIO, was recently a guest on Gigabit Nation, an Internet radio talk show devoted to broadband issues. “We had some DSL in the center of Rocky Mount, the county seat,” Terry says. “But to deploy to other communities would have been too costly.” She and her colleagues didn’t believe incumbents held the answer. They felt they needed another way.
 
Creating a true partnership

“We had communication towers throughout the county,” Terry continues. “What if we used them to leverage a relationship with a provider?” Two brothers, one who had a business for years building towers and the other a network engineer, started B2K after moving into the area and finding the lack of Internet access services disappointing. They were building a network in a nearby county when Franklin County was looking for better broadband.

“We asked B2K if they would help us, and explained our idea for providing our towers as part of a partnership arrangement,” says Terry. “They were members of the community and wanted to do the right thing. They helped us draft a plan that made sure their business would be sustainable for at least five years. For us, the agreement stipulated network upgrades to meet our evolving government and business needs, including recent enhancements to give us 10-11 Mbps.”

They arranged a swap. The county allowed B2K to use its original
21 towers and other government facilities in exchange for favorable
rates for the services the government uses.

Franklin County IT Department
Franklin County’s new wireless network reaching far and wide.

In the interim, the county has occasionally asked landowners to allow them to come onto their lands to erect some sort of tower to reach the more difficult and isolated constituents. In one case, they asked a local abbey to allow them to put equipment in the bell tower, which the abbey agreed to do in exchange for services. Yes, sometimes, “It takes a village to deploy broadband.” Often owners can be enticed if they can access to the broadband.

Many WISPs begin as local businesses to meet local needs. Because they are part of the communities they serve, subscribers have less worry of being abandoned. “Though we meet once a year to share needs, we can call B2K anytime there’s an issue,” states Terry. “It’s a true partnership. They’re members of our team.  We’re always trying to figure out what to do to help each other.

Local WISPs also bring better technology into the picture. Much of the typical wireless service from large providers is based on cellular technologies, and faster WiMAX wireless technology is struggling to stay alive. Subscribers to cellular service may only receive on average 1.5 Mbps of speed. This may be adequate for basic Web surfing when subscribers are mobile, but it’s poor for high-powered computing tasks such as large data transfers and video conferencing. In rural areas such as Franklin County, office/home workers running bandwidth-intensive applications and mobile users all have to use the same wireless network. The promise of new faster service from incumbents may be more hype than substance.

Franklin County’s wireless mesh network using Motorola’s Canopy technology supports data and voice over IP (VoIP) throughout the county with a guaranteed high quality of service delivering 5 Mbps and 8 Mbps to all government facilities, with the capacity to provide over double the speed to government, consumer and business subscribers. Among B2K’s many accomplishments, they have helped the county government reduce telecom expenditures 36% in two years.

As further testimony to the power of their version of wireless, in 2009 “we moved to a new government facility,” states Terry. “We planned to house the entire county administration in one complex supported with two fiber lines. However, we could only install one line. The wireless network carried the entire government’s voice and data operation for a year and a half. We used streaming video, managed public safety, pushed online training out to 16 fire stations and supported mobile government workers.”

Wireless is an important technology to meet the broadband needs of rural communities. But more communities may want to call on homegrown and regional WISPs to make this technology a reality. 

Craig Settles, of Oakland, California, is an analyst and business strategist in the broadband industry. Tune into his new Internet radio talk show Gigabit Nation.

 

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