Could wireless internet service really improve a rural community? Greene County, North Carolina, a former stronghold of tobacco production one hour east of Raleigh, now has some compelling answers.

The community showed high rates of poverty, low educational attainment, and outmigration through the 1990s, as declines in the domestic tobacco industry dragged this, “the second most tobacco dependent county in the U.S.,” into economic decline. But community leaders made a major investment — in local citizens and technology. Since providing all students grades 6 through 12 with laptop computers, beginning in 2003, and installing an affordable countywide wireless internet system so that those computers are easy to use, there have been remarkable changes.

In Greene County “SAT composite scores increased by 41 points….High school proficiency scores increased from 53 percent to 78.4 percent since 2003. More than 80 percent of the 2006 Senior Class applied to college compared to 28 percent of the 2004 Senior Class.”

And those are just the educational changes. According to One, which partnered with the county schools and community leaders to make the technological changes, “in 2006, twelve new businesses were attracted and opened in Greene County after years of negative business growth.”

Downtown Greenville, NC, tanning beds, hair salon, and community wireless internet (Photo: Jerimee Richir).

Communities, of course, don’t thrive with technology alone. Greene County’s wireless system succeeded by bringing so many local forces together, not just schools and municipalities. “More than a dozen church and community buildings have become hot spots for free internet access and these locations are the host for the free technology training.” Also Greene County has developed its own online Beehive — a social networking site with many features for local citizens: candidates’ forums, business news, plus information on careers, small business development and agricultural alternatives to tobacco. It’s no surprise that Greene County’s largest newspaper, The Daily Reflector, has a strong website, too.

The cost of high-speed internet access has deterred many rural communities from making Greene County’s move. But it appears now that slow-trot efforts to bring affordable WiFi to rural America may be breaking into gallop.

Last week Intel announced development of its rural connectivity platform. According to the company’s Jeff Galinovsky, the technology extends wireless internet access across 60 miles, using a processor, radios, specialized software and an antenna. “The system isn’t complex and will have a target price of $500. Two systems will be required for each set up so the total cost to wire a location will be $1,000.”

Galinovsky said that the system has been tested in India, Panama, Vietnam and South Africa. “To send signals over such a long distance, Intel’s technology uses a directional router sitting atop a tower that communicates with a radio several kilometres away. The tower is needed because RCP requires line of sight.” (Set up could be tricky — requiring additional equipment, in mountainous areas.)

Hard-core techies may want to read more about the intricacies of the system here and here. It sounds almost too good to be true: low cost, low-power, easy to install.

Meanwhile, Google with support from Intel, Microsoft, Dell and “more than two dozen other tech companies,” is petitioning the Federal Communications Commssion to use the “buffer frequencies between the TV channels” for public WiFi — and presumably other purposes as well.

On the face of it, the Intel technology seems to offer wireless at big savings over current systems. Kingsport, Tennessee, has invested $160,000 in a three-year pilot program for community wireless. Springfield, Michigan, hopes its WiFi network will be in operation this July — funded with $750,000 in Community Development Block Grant dollars; the Springfield wireless service will be available for $10 per month to lower income families and “students will be allowed one-and-a-half hours daily access for free.”

(Of note, Sebastapol, California, was ready to bring a free community wireless sytem online this week, but a group of local citizens protested, claiming that wireless technology presents “potential health risks.” If anyone authenticates such hazards, please let us know!)

Last June a consulting firm looking into the demand for rural wireless found “more than 2,000 communities with populations of 60,000 or more interested in developing municipal broadband or wireless services.” With the new technologies now in development and frequency allocations under consideration, communities of all sizes may find wireless internet systems — and all they potentially can offer — soon within reach.

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