Wireless Access Lets Rural Areas Bridge Digital Divide

Many eager for high-speed Internet connections find usual broadband options geographically, financially out of reach

October 06, 2005|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

Al Hammond was tired of swearing at his sluggish dial-up Internet connection, but he lives in a pocket of the upper Eastern Shore that had no cheap high-speed alternative. In many parts of rural Maryland, wide open spaces - or mountains - rule out cable and DSL access.

Hammond, undeterred, set off to build a high-speed system himself.

This is happening across the state - and across the nation - as workers, business owners and local governments tire of waiting for telecommunications giants to reach into the least populated spots. Many are giving new wireless technology a try because it covers more ground for less money.

The efforts are born of frustration and desperation. With affordable high-speed Internet access now as much a requirement for robust economic development as highways and electricity, communities that don't have it are getting left behind. Most businesses - from one-person consulting firms to major employers - prefer broadband.

"It is the backbone infrastructure of the knowledge economy," said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development. "We made dramatic progress in getting Verizon to put in nodes in most towns in the rural areas, but if you happen to be five miles from town, you have a hard time."

That's beginning to change.

Hammond's year-old Bay Broadband Communications LLC is attaching radios to towers, grain elevators and other tall structures on the Eastern Shore to send and receive data as microwave signals. The system is operational in Kent County, the northern side of Queen Anne's and the southern side of Cecil, and his company will be working its way down, aided by a $4.3 million federal loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Worcester County on the lower Shore, a nonprofit co-op with a $500,000 local government grant is installing its own wireless equipment to reach into far-flung, unconnected corners of the community. Caroline County's government is doing the same - it hopes to offer service to the public next year, probably through a nonprofit - while Easton's municipal utility is using wireless technology to reach outside the town into uncovered territory.

In Western Maryland, Allegany County invented its own open-access wireless network that's about to be rolled out to users through private Internet service providers.

In Southern Maryland, a government study released this week about high-speed dead zones in the tri-county area recommends that local leaders in St. Mary's, Charles and Calvert counties recruit a business to build a $4 million wireless network - or build it themselves.

Even the state government is considering the possibility of developing a network to fill in service gaps. Melissaratos hopes to have a plan in place in several months.

About 15 percent of the country does not have the option to buy cable Internet or DSL, the digital subscriber lines run by phone companies, said Lindsay Schroth, a senior analyst at Yankee Group, a Boston technology research and consulting firm. The farther you live or work from sizable cities, the more likely you'll have problems.

Electricity and telephone service were also slow to come to rural America, and for the same reason: Providers concentrated on putting the costly lines where they would serve thousands of customers rather than dozens. Co-ops eventually formed to deal with the gaps.

Both Verizon and Comcast have spent the past few years - and millions of dollars - rolling out high-speed service to communities outside the Baltimore-Washington corridor. But residents and businesses say there are still many places that neither have reached. Even in towns, blank spots remain.

"Economically, it doesn't make sense to run cable to some of these places," said Henry Pearl, general manager for Comcast of Delmarva, which in Maryland offers high-speed service in parts of seven Shore counties. "We'll expand the footprint ... wherever it makes sense to do that, where there's a customer base that will pay for that construction over time."

Price is another problem. Colotraq, a New Jersey consulting firm that helps businesses purchase telecommunications services, said the monthly price for T1 service - a dedicated high-speed connection for businesses - ranges from about $390 to $600 in Baltimore but would likely cost $700 to $900 in the countryside. Get out far enough, residents say, and it tops $1,000.

When Bay Broadband sent an Internet service questionnaire to Shore businesses this year, the responses captured this frustration.

"We got quite a few that said `help!'" noted Hammond, who works on wireless technology applications in developing countries for his day job at a Washington think tank.

He lives four miles outside Chestertown, with no option for DSL or cable, and he's hardly unusual. More than two-thirds of Eastern Shore residents live outside incorporated towns, according to the most recent census estimates.

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