In a perfect world, everyone would have access to a broadband technology like cable or fiber. However, it will be decades before telcos and cable providers expand these high-speed services to rural areas. While none of these alternative solutions have emerged as a leader, it looks to be a race between WiMAX and BPL.

Broadband Adventures in Rural America

Chris Roden | Parks Associates

Broadband Adventures in Rural America

In a perfect world, everyone would have access to a broadband technology like cable or fiber. However, it will be decades before telcos and cable providers expand these high-speed services to rural areas. While none of these alternative solutions have emerged as a leader, it looks to be a race between WiMAX and BPL.

Chris Roden, Parks Associates


I had the pleasure of house-sitting for my parents a few weeks back. Now, this was not your typical house-sitting job. I was taking care of a two-story log cabin on more than 200 acres in rural East Texas. After attending to my duties of feeding 12 cows, five dogs, two donkeys and a cat, I planted myself on the couch and watched six hours of NCAA Men's tournament basketball. Life was good. I thought to myself, "I could live out here!" Now, being that far from civilization would be a hard sell for my wife. However, other than being an hour away from the closest shopping center, we would have access to most of the luxuries that we currently have in the big city. I was building my case when I decided to do some research on the Internet. My parents had invested significantly in obtaining satellite Internet. I was expecting similar speeds to my DSL at home. I could not have been more wrong! 30 seconds…one minute…two minutes… After about three minutes, the home page was finally up and running. Surely, this can't be right. I checked the computer diagnostics and everything was fine. I tried the most common solution for all computer problems, rebooting the system. That did not work. After about 30 minutes of surfing through one site I gave up. My dream of becoming "one" with nature was quickly fading.

What do people in rural areas do if they want something faster than narrowband/dial-up? There is a view that few rural residents demand a broadband connection. However, Parks Associates has found that a significant number of rural residents who have narrowband/dial-up do want a broadband option. The issue of providing broadband service to rural areas has not gone unnoticed by communication vendors and service providers. Some of the more popular and touted rural broadband solutions include:

WiMAX

While systems like long-range WiFi have been discussed and implemented sparingly, it is the potential of WiMAX that could be rural America's broadband salvation. Sometimes referred to as "WiFi on steroids," fixed WiMAX is a communication technology that combines the features of broadband and wireless service. A broadband signal can be sent from a WiMAX tower up to 30 miles. What makes WiMAX most attractive in rural areas is its ability to provide high-speed data rates while having a lower "last-mile" cost compared to broadband options like DSL, cable, or fiber. WiMAX can provide a shared data rate of up to 70 M/bps. After the bandwidth is divided, WiMAX can provide data rates similar to those of DSL and cable. Furthermore, because the bandwidth is divided via microwaves and not cable to the home, the connection costs are much lower.

Initially, WiMAX has been slow to develop in the United States. Much of this delay can be attributed to the profile that has been certified by the WiMAX Forum. The WiMAX Forum is the organization responsible for certifying and promoting compatibility and interoperability of wireless products based on the IEEE 802.16/ETSI HiperMAN standard. The only profile that has been certified to date is 3.5 GHz, which is currently not available in the United States. However, this fact has not deterred all U.S. vendors. Some companies have begun developing wireless solutions based on the 2.3-2.5 GHz spectrum. The potential of WiMAX is big enough to encourage companies like AT&T, DirecTV, and EchoStar to explore the possibilities of this new technology.

Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL)

Utilizing power lines as a medium for communication is an idea that has been widely discussed for many years. Similar to the characteristics that led to the development of DSL, the use of surplus frequency space on power lines for communication is a simple concept that, until recently, has been difficult to implement. BPL works by sending a broadband signal that has originated from the central office, through the power line and into the home. The signal is repeated or regenerated every couple of miles. In most cases, the signal enters the home through a wall socket.

Ultimately what will drive BPL's growth in the U.S. is interest from the utilities. Providing broadband services to consumers is currently a secondary interest for most utility companies. BPL technology has the potential to provide utilities with the ability to perform such activities as outage detection, automated meter reading, remote monitoring, voltage monitoring throughout the system, and security functions. If these types of solutions can provide value to utility companies, they will be more inclined to further BPL's development by providing broadband services to their customers. While there is "buzz" about BPL's potential, there are still questions regarding the feasibility of this technology. The inability to achieve high data rates, problems associated with grid re-routing, and the high attenuation of the signal are all criticisms of BPL that have yet to be fully resolved. However, there is enough potential that companies such as Google and Earthlink have invested millions of dollars in BPL vendors. Numerous consumer tests are being conducted around the United States.

Satellite

Satellite Internet has seen little adoption in the United States. Offered by companies such as Hughes Network Systems and Wildblue Communications, satellite Internet has several limitations. For example, equipment is expensive. The initial installation can cost a household anywhere from $500 to $700 and the monthly fees for broadband access can range from $60 to $100 depending on the tier of service. It is apparent that satellite Internet providers recognize the limitations of this technology and are investigating other ways to serve rural customers. As mentioned previously, companies like DirecTV and EchoStar are exploring technologies like WiMAX as a possible broadband solution for their customers.

In a perfect world, everyone would have access to a broadband technology like cable or fiber. However, it will be decades before telcos and cable providers expand these high-speed services to rural areas. While none of these alternative solutions have emerged as a leader, it looks to be a race between WiMAX and BPL. Both access methods have seen noteworthy development and implementation in the U.S. Regardless of which technology wins, a substantial opportunity exists for the communication vendors and service providers that can provide a cost effective, higher-speed alternative to narrowband dial-up. Meanwhile, my move to rural America has been put on hold. I am sure my wife is breathing a sigh of relief.

About the Author

Chris Roden studies access technologies with a focus on broadband over power lines (BPL) and FTTx.


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