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The Need for Speed
Thursday, November 20, 2014 3:31PM CST

By Virginia H. Harris
Progressive Farmer Associate Editor

Rick Harnish knows from experience that farming and a good Internet connection go hand in hand. However, many small rural communities still lack fast downloads and reliable Internet connections.

Harnish, now executive director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), has been on the forefront of rural Internet connectivity since 1995, when he invested in a dial-up provider. Two years later, he began offering wireless broadband to the downtown area of Bluffton, Ind., at the request of the local library, eventually utilizing the town's new cell phone tower to broadcast wireless service to his farm and the surrounding area.

The former farmer grew corn, soybeans and tomatoes with his father near Bluffton until 2003, when juggling farm responsibilities and customer responsibilities became too much.

"I ended up doing both farming and building my wireless Internet business together," he says. "Sometimes, I was unloading grain during harvest with an antennae in the back of my pickup truck and my laptop on my lap."

Harnish's company, OnlyInternet, grew to reach 19 counties in Indiana and Ohio, and 4,000 customers before he sold the company in 2008. Today, he helps WISPA members stay connected through the organization, advocating for small companies and helping them improve Internet service and customer service.

POOR CONNECTIONS

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) reports rural residents lack access at all Internet speed rates (3 Mbps to 1 Gbps) when compared to their urban counterparts. NTIA attributes much of this disparity to the simple lack of technology.

Urban areas, for example, have greater access to wired broadband technology, such as cable and fiber optic wires. The most commonly used system, Internet delivered through cable TV cables, is available to nearly 88% of urban residents but only 40% of rural residents. Fiber optic--delivered broadband reaches nearly 24% of urban residents and only 7.5% of rural residents. The NTIA reports wireline services (cable, DSL and fiber) are the best services to provide download speeds of 25 Mbps or faster.

These numbers don't just mean rural residents can't watch movies online, or download games. The lack of a good Internet connection also limits remote access to education, careers and even health care. In addition, it can hurt businesses.

Connected Nation, a nonprofit that helps communities plan and implement better broadband Internet services, estimates 36% of businesses collectively earn $1.7 trillion annually from online sales. Meanwhile, 24% of businesses nationally operate without broadband access.

Rick Schadelbauer, of The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) points out, "It's very difficult to attract new businesses to your community if you don't have broadband service that can connect to other places."

A LONG ROAD AHEAD

NTIA estimates wireless providers offer speeds of 3 Mbps to 10 Mbps at comparable percentages to wired providers, such as cable or fiber. However, at speeds of 25 Mbps or higher, wireless providers lag behind. Wireless technologies must battle geographical boundaries and the threat of weather. Wired technologies are typically more reliable and only interrupted if a line is severed or blown down.

Those statistics aren't bad if you only use relatively simple web pages or email, or stream video on one device. But more complicated programs require a minimum of 25 Mbps or higher.

NTIA reports around 40% of rural Americans have access to 25 Mbps speeds (from wired and wireless providers), compared to nearly 88% of urban Americans. That percentage decreases for rural residents as speeds increase.

Harnish contends most wireless Internet service provider (ISP) networks today have "matured enough where they have good battery backup systems and good lightning protection on their equipment."

He points out wireless networks also have a fail-safe. If one receiver goes out, the signal can be rerouted automatically through another tower without interrupting service to the customer. And unlike mobile wireless providers, such as your cell phone company, wireless ISPs typically don't have data caps.

Harnish believes progress and systems like these fail-safes make wireless ISPs a reliable service, with faster speeds on the horizon as companies upgrade equipment.

WHITE SPACE

He also points out access to "white space," or unused TV frequencies, could help small wireless providers offer faster, more wide-reaching services to customers. But white space availability varies from location to location depending on a region or town's local television stations.

Harnish praises smaller providers because they "understand the economy" and "they want to help their community." They balance customer needs, what customers can pay and the need to achieve the same level of speeds as the rest of the country.

He points out public/private partnerships are necessary for WISPs, which typically need access to a local water tower or cell phone tower to attach their signal equipment.

WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS?

If you are interested in exploring what Internet services are available in your area, several online maps can provide locations of nearby providers.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA): www.wispa.org/member-directory

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA): broadbandmap.gov

DIY Options: Grain Controls offers a receiver/transmitter system that allows you to connect to a neighbor in line of sight. Grain Controls systems start at $425 for a short-range kit. For more information, visit www.graincontrols.com. Millenicom offers a mobile hot spot device that can provide up to 4G mobile speeds. Prices start at $89.99 per month. For more information, visit www.millenicom.com.

(AG)


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