Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wireless or a hybrid with fiber-optic cable may help solve the rural broadband problem

Bringing high-speed internet service to people in far-flung rural areas is an ongoing problem, but a rural Minnesota county may have an interesting solution: a hybrid model that combines fiber-optic cables with wireless. And some wireless internet providers are already helping bridge the rural-urban broadband gap.

The problem is mainly the cost of laying the fiber. Telecommunications companies can lay a main line to a community, but rural counties can't usually afford to lay individual lines to homes that may be miles apart from the nearest neighbors. State and federal grants can help, but only go so far. This "last mile" problem is the kicker.

In Minnesota's Yellow Medicine County, a recent study estimated that laying fiber to 1,862 rural homes would cost $22 million. But Finley Engineering, which conducted the study, said using a wireless and fiber hybrid would cost only $5 million. "The hybrid proposal in Yellow Medicine County calls for laying a 52-mile fiber optic line to serve as a backbone to connect a string of towers to cover the rural areas. That compares to the 955 miles of fiber optic cable needed for a fiber-only option," Tom Cherveny reports for West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn.

Would wireless internet in Yellow Medicine be as fast as broadband? Maybe, says Dan Richter, president of area provider MVTV Wireless. But he says providers in the region are improving internet speeds as economic conditions allow, Cherveny reports. Richter says MVTV will urge a county-appointed task force to consider the hybrid model as a solution.

Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder that more than 3,000 wireless internet service providers use fixed wireless technology, in which transmitters boost and relay data back and forth from homes to a fiber-optic source. "Each one [is] usually run by a handful of people who do everything: engineering design, hanging routers, marketing, customer service, and tech support. Some WISPs are integrating fiber technology into hybrid systems that use both wireless and wired communications technology," Settles reports. And though the speed provided by WISPs isn't as fast as cable broadband, it's probably plenty fast enough for most families, according to Jimmy Carr, CEO of fixed wireless company All Points Broadband.

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