Broadband goes rural

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A microwave radio network behaves in funny ways when its signal passes over a lake between two points, such as a water tower and an antenna on the roof of a farmhouse. Acting as a mirror, the water creates thousands of reflections of the signal, which blind the receiver.

It's just one of the challenges that officials at some wireless communications companies encounter when they expand into rural communities to offer broadband Internet access. "You have to use all kinds of tricks to shoot over water," said Lionel Cassin, vice president of Pegasus Rural Broadband, a subsidiary of Pegasus Communications Inc.

This spring, the company received a

$13 million loan from the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service to provide high-speed wireless Internet access to 100 rural Texas communities with a total population of 400,000. Typically, businesses have shied away from offering rural broadband access. "It's fundamentally a risky business," Cassin said. "The incomes are lower, [and] the people are farther apart."

But a farm bill passed by Congress in 2002 included a $2 billion low-interest loan program to provide broadband access in rural communities of 20,000 or fewer people. Pegasus, whose parent company is a reseller of direct satellite TV service, is one of more than a dozen communications companies that have applied for and received loans under the program.

In Cassin's view, the rural digital divide will disappear. "Broadband is moving very quickly on the face of America," he said, adding that "it's going everywhere."

Others, however, are not so optimistic. "Things have not changed substantially in the last couple of years," said Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, a group of state universities and land-grant colleges that develop online education programs.

Nevertheless, Poley said the entry of larger companies into the rural broadband business and the government loan program are positive developments. "They're the ones with the wherewithal to get the money and pay back the loan," she said. Both are necessary for building a rural broadband infrastructure.

Congress' intent in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 was to ensure that rural communities get broadband Internet access. "Even if it [just] means the seniors in these rural communities see their grandchildren's pictures over a high-speed connection at a community center, it brings them into the Information Age," said Hilda Legg, administrator for the Rural Utilities Service.

For purposes of making loans and loan guarantees, the service defines broadband Internet access as 200 kilobits/sec for downloading and uploading files. Typically, satellite technology is too slow to qualify. But many wired and wireless broadband technologies have been approved under the loan program, Legg said. "We do not tell them what kind of technology we think is best."

Pegasus Rural Broadband is using its $13 million loan to install fixed wireless microwave radio networks. The company uses three unlicensed frequencies — 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz — and equipment from three manufacturers: Motorola Inc., Alvarion and Orthogon Systems Inc. Pegasus officials call their service WiBAND and charge $29.95 a month for 200 kilobit/sec access. Their premium service, at $49.95 a month, is 768 kilobits/sec for downloads and 400 kilobits/sec for uploads.

Apart from the problems with locations near bodies of water, Cassin said providing broadband microwave access follows a now-routine pattern. Company officials go into a rural community, look for a water tower or other elevated structure and begin negotiations with the owner for permission to attach networking gear.

"That begins a two-month process of showing up at city council [meetings], shaking hands and talking to people," Cassin said. "That's fun, and we know how to do it."

A more difficult part is scheduling appointments to install microwave antennas, each measuring about 1 square foot, on the rooftops of people's homes after they sign up for the service. "You have to really plan your installs very carefully because you don't want to go 50 miles in one direction and 150 miles in the other direction," Cassin said.

Another difficulty is avoiding buildings, trees and water, each of which obstructs microwave frequencies. "It's bad enough to drive 30 miles to get to a customer's location," he said, "but it's triply bad to go out there and find you can't get the signal. Those are the two gigantic challenges of fixed wireless in rural America."

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