Members of a Midwest Energy Cooperative contract crew pull fiber cable in Schoolcraft, Michigan. Midwest is one provider that is developing hybrid systems the bring fixed-wireless access into the equation. Craig Settles says the combination can be a good option for getting rural communities online faster and getting community-focused networks off the ground. Photo courtesy Midwest Energy Cooperative.

For all the talk about fiber being the future of broadband, an increasing number of rural communities are finding a prominent seat at the table for wireless technology as well. Now that Google has dropped both oars in the wireless waters, expect communities to follow suit.

“For the entire broadband industry, Google has definitely made things interesting,” says Joel Mulder, vice president of sales at eX2 Technology, which designs and installs broadband networks .

The potential of wireless is especially apparent for rural areas.

“Few people dispute that in many ways fiber is a superior technology for broadband compared to wireless,” states Terry Rubenthaler, vice president of operations and engineering at Midwest Energy Cooperative. Midwest is Michigan utility that provides energy and Internet services “However, the reality is that terrain issues, geographic isolation, low-income status, and other factors make it virtually impossible to deliver fiber ubiquitously.”

Other than terrain and geography issues, what’s driving wireless’ popularity is innovation and cost.Several companies are testing products that enable wireless networks to deliver up to a gigabit Internet access speeds to businesses and individuals.

It sometimes seems the broadband industry forgets that individuals, businesses, and organizations don’t care very much if Internet access arrives wirelessly or by wired connection, as long as it is fast, reliable, secure, and affordable. RS Fiber is a co-op located in southern Minnesota established by 17 towns and townships. Their customers have only wireless access for five years while the co-op completes a gig fiber buildout.

“There wasn’t a single complaint,” Mark Erickson, the head of the economic development agency in Winthrop, Minnesota, and a key contributor to the project. “You have to understand, many of our residence have nothing more than dial-up. Our network has been operating for several months now and customers are incredibly happy.”

The case for wireless in rural broadband

When determining appropriate roles for wireless, it helps to understand the on-again off-again relationships communities have had with wireless over the years. In 2006, municipal wi-fi was going to be the salvation of our cities, whether urban, rural, or suburban. At the end of the decade, fiber was the future. Or wireless. It depended on which broadband religion you believed. Last year, it was fiber or nothing. In the past two or three months, gig wireless is making hearts twitter.

Today, some are coalescing around the belief rural communities are best served through a mix of technologies.

“We might push a gig, but we have plans to heavily promote 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps services,” said Bob Hance, the president and CEO of Midwest,. “Executives of companies and universities often are not able to be productive working online from home, so they’ll want a gig. But for those performing basic tasks, 10 Mbps is a big deal.”

The question of which technology to use in rural broadband has been skewed by the constant media barrage and political pressure to deliver a gig everywhere. Once communities get swept up in the gig discussion, wireless gets shunted off into the role of “actor of last resort.” However, that is quickly changing as new innovations make it possible to provide up to gig-speed Internet service in rural areas via fixed wireless. (Fixed wireless uses radio transmitters that send data longer distances to homes. It’s different from cellular service, which transmits smaller data amounts over shorter distances.)

“Hiawatha [an Internet service provider] said they could build a 25 Mbps symmetrical wireless network that they would complete in six months while the fiber buildout takes place. This strategy was a stroke of genius.”
— Mark Erickson, RS Fiber board member

Jaime Fink, chief product officer and cofounder of Mimosa, which creates “fiber fast” networks, champions a hybrid wired/wireless infrastructure. “Even with dig-once policies, there is still significant cost with laying fiber from the curb to individual residences or businesses,” Fink says. (Dig-once policies require any government project that involves digging to add fiber conduit if there’s an anticipation fiber will be needed there in the future.)

“Wi-fi has its place with outdoor data communications, but to spread the unlicensed spectrum around indoors to multiple computing devices and smart applications will be problematic. Our approach to spectrum sharing eliminates this problem, while simultaneously allowing us to deliver a gigabit to the home.”

Once you remove the speed limitations on wireless, the value of a hybrid wired and wireless infrastructure makes sense in rural areas. First, there are the cost-savings. The cost of getting a wireless customer up and running can average $200 to $300, including the equipment customers need in their homes (the customer premise equipment or CPE), With fiber, it may cost an average of $1,000-$2,000 up to $10,000 per household in the sparsely populated rural areas. Second, deployment time is faster with wireless.

RS Fiber sets standard for hybrid infrastructure deployments

Originally 10 mostly rural Minnesota cities in Renville and Sibley counties created a joint powers board with the consensus that the board would run the broadband network that the communities were planning. The RS Fiber co-op was formed to represent the rural communities’ communications interests.

RS Fiber decided, based on the recommendation of their Internet service provider (ISP), Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that they would build a hybrid network.

“It was going to take three years to build out fiber to the larger towns and another two to three to build fiber to farms in the two counties,” says Erickson. “Hiawatha said they could build a 25 Mbps symmetrical wireless network that they would complete in six months while the fiber buildout takes place. This strategy was a stroke of genius.”

This easily could become the norm in both rural and urban U.S. communities.

Rather than have constituents continue to suffer with bad – or no – broadband for years, RS Fiber’s wireless infrastructure has been lit for several months and users are reaping the benefits. All RS Fiber had to do was requisition space for transmitters and receivers on water towers and grain legs, tall structures that protrude above grain bins. Then they integrated the fiber into transmission hubs that deliver wireless signals to homes and businesses. Once customers get data receivers in their homes, they’re ready to go. The wireless services enabled quick cash flow, plus RS Fiber now has a loyal customer base for fiber before that buildout is complete.

As a bonus, they are able to provide services to residents and farms beyond the co-op’s footprint, which means additional revenue. They can offer Internet-based telephone service (VoIP) as an alternative to expensive cellular phones. When the fiber network is complete, the wireless infrastructure becomes a back up system for the fiber network.

As the drive intensifies to have their constituents connected to the rest of the world with highspeed Internet access, leaders of rural towns and counties can meet that need faster and for less money by building hybrid broadband infrastructure. Though it has taken a little more time than has been hoped, wireless could be on the brink of becoming an equal partner with fiber in the rural broadband world.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and consultant. His most recent report, “Urban Communities Need Better Broadband Too,” looks at how community-driven broadband development could affect cities.

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