Taking wireless the last mile

States with large rural populations know that Internet access must play

a role in just about any economic development campaign. But providing access

to outlying areas is neither cheap nor easy.

A small Virginia community has successfully tested wireless technology

designed to bring broadband service the "last mile," to rural areas where

fiber-optic lines are not available or may be too costly to install.

And other municipalities are looking to this option as the possible

answer to their economic development dilemmas.

The Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS) network relies on radio

frequencies to deliver wireless two-way, high-speed data, voice and video

traffic. The hub is a site at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

in Blacksburg, Va., that links to several campus buildings and an apartment

complex.

LMDS is designed to distribute bandwidth to users at multiple remote

sites. Because it is wireless, LMDS is much cheaper to deploy than fiber

optics or cable, but still offers high-speed connectivity.

LMDS offers more than twice the bandwidth of AM/FM radio, VHF/UHF television

and cellular telephone combined. Most other frequency bandwidths have stringent

restrictions, such as data traveling in one direction only or only allowing

one type of traffic to be transmitted, but LMDS is a flexible pipeline offering

high transmission speeds and supporting simultaneous delivery of multiple

types of traffic in two directions.

Proving its Mettle

The system was deployed in October 1999 through a partnership between

Virginia Tech and Wavtrace Inc., which donated the equipment. So far, the

LMDS network, which supports several hundred users, has proven reliable

in numerous tests, said Tim Callahan, LMDS project manager at Virginia Tech.

The system supports applications that operate across a wired T1 or Ethernet,

with similar performance, Callahan said. The researchers tested several

real-time and non-real-time applications, including voice-over-IP videoconferencing

and traditional downloading.

"The LMDS wireless link has not had a negative impact on any application

we have tested," Callahan said. "With the proper pre- engineering, wireless

LMDS links operate reliably with little maintenance."

Several Web servers operate at remote sites, providing content across

the wireless link. Developers have also used the system for voice applications.

With LMDS, calls are nearly indistinguishable from wired voice calls, he

said.

Because LMDS frequencies are relatively high in the spectrum, transmission

of this very small waveform is hindered or stopped by walls, trees, buildings

and even heavy rainfalls. As a result, the system needs antennas posted

at each endpoint with a clear line of sight.

However, Callahan said the network should be able to withstand a rain

rate of more than three inches per hour. Rain this heavy typically lasts

only several minutes, and the wireless link is re-established as soon as

the rain decreases, he said.

Cortney Martin, director for broadband wireless networking at Virginia

Tech, said the network transmits 30 megabits of data per second. In the

next release of the system, which is scheduled for next year, the LMDS system

will be able to transmit 180 megabits/sec, she said.

Easygoing

Despite these high-speed connections, one of the main draws of the technology — which is used primarily on leased buildings — is its flexibility, Martin

said.

"Those leases may end at any time," she said. "We can take the equipment

with us and move it. We really wouldn't be able to justify fiber in most

of these cases. We can justify the wireless."

Dennis Sweeney, an assistant research professor with Virginia Tech's

Center for Wireless Telecommunications, said the success of the system has

resulted in several other Virginia communities expressing interest in the

technology.

Officials are designing a system for Halifax County, Va., to connect

businesses, a corporate training center and a continuing education center

in a planned 148-acre industrial park. In addition, Henry County, Va., has

commissioned the university to perform a feasibility study for offering

the technology to businesses and residents there, Sweeney said.

William Confroy, executive director of the industrial development authority

in Halifax County, said the technology would allow the rural county to be

more competitive in economic development.

"It would be extremely competitive and would probably be one-fourth

or one-eighth the cost of what present costs are for those businesses,"

he said. "It will put us on par with the rest of the world, and it will

give us the opportunity to recruit new business."

It's the Economy

Tim Hall, public information officer for Henry County, said the county

considers itself very competitive in most aspects of economic development,

except for its relatively rural location and its low population (56,000).

Offering LMDS to potential businesses could "move us to the head of the

line" in economic development competition with other counties and states,

he said.

"If we can offer a company the very cutting-edge technology that they

don't expect us to offer, that may sway some companies our way," Hall said.

Glenn Ratliff Jr., general manager of Internet service provider GCR

Online Inc., said a potential application of the LMDS system is for county

government agencies to use the wireless technology for backup or even for

primary high-bandwidth, high-speed connections for daily communications

among themselves.

"The town is looking at a wireless solution because it's too expensive

to run fiber," he said. "Something like this could be the answer to their

problem from day one. They could have some secure connections, some that

are open to the public. They could stand an outage. That's going to be a

potential money-saving scenario."

In addition, because many of the ISP's customers are small businesses

and government agencies that cannot afford full-time IT technical em-ployees,

GCR handles local-area network administration for many of its customers.

Now, GCR employees spend about 10 percent of their time visiting customer

sites for routine maintenance, such as creating new user accounts and updating

software, Ratliff said. But with an LMDS connection, all that work could

be done remotely from the company's offices.

Virginia Tech also plans to study the feasibility of extending the technology

to Grundy, Va., a coal town with a population of about 16,000 that is being

moved by the Army Corps of Engineers because of its current precarious location

on a flood plain, according to Sweeney. Meanwhile, researchers are exploring

using LMDS radio technology to devise a "wireless neighborhood," he said.

"Think of this equipment not as some hub transmitting out to some location

but as a wireless cable," Sweeney said. "It would cost us a couple hundred

dollars and it would look like a wireless Ethernet. For a very low cost,

the LMDS could literally replace the cable. You can have almost instant

infrastructure."

The National Science Foundation has given Virginia Tech money to develop

a portable LMDS system, which would not require a clear line of sight between

the transmitter and the receiver and could be used for communications in

disaster-recovery situations, Sweeney said.

Officials at Virginia Tech are in discussions with other vendors, including

Alcatel, Ameritech Corp. and Verizon Communications for future research

project partnerships. In addition, several other universities have formed

a partnership with Virginia Tech to develop the technologies necessary for

deploying a broadband wireless system in the Appalachian region that will

focus on health care applications, manufacturing and delivery of training

and education to remote sites.

Developers are negotiating a large-scale advanced networking project

in the Washington, D.C., area that would link its various LMDS projects.

Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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