Broadband stimulus brings WiMAX to rural U.S.

Broadband fans living in some rural areas of the country won't have to wait for Clearwire, Verizon or AT&T to deploy 4G services in their areas.

Broadband stimulus: Will wireless fit the bill?

That's because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded broadband stimulus grants of more than $500 million to 40 companies to deploy WiMAX services in 22 states. The grants, recently awarded by the Rural Utility Service Fund's second round of grants, will go toward building high-speed networks in areas that so far have had to rely on dial-up connections to log onto the Web.

Two prominent companies to win major grants include EcliptixNet Broadband, a rural-focused ISP in Washington state, and DigitalBridge Communications, an ISP in Virginia that delivers wireless Internet services to Virginia, Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. EcliptixNet received the larger grant, getting a total of $20.4 million to build out a mobile WiMAX network in rural Washington that will cover 46,000 rural homes, while DigitalBridge has received $7.5 million in grants to build out WiMAX networks in Idaho, Indiana and Mississippi.

EcliptixNet founder Jeff Tamietti says that while his company is building 14 new antenna sites for its Washington WiMAX network, the firm is mostly relying on existing cellular sites, as it is collocating its WiMAX transmissions on 36 towers already in use. The reason for this, he says, is that the mountainous terrain of western Washington makes it difficult to propagate signals, so it's simply better to rely on antennas located in places where signals have been shown to travel far and wide.

"The more towers we have the more we can reach those deep pockets that are hidden in the valleys and shadows of the mountains," he says. "The terrain is very mountainous, it has tons of trees. It's not a cookie-cutter infrastructure by any means and building it in that environment will be the most challenging aspect we deal with."

Tamiette estimates that each WiMAX antenna will propagate its signal over a radius of between 6 to 8 miles. He says while the company also offers high-speed Wi-Fi services over the unlicensed 900MHz spectrum band, building a WiMAX network will give customers the ability to travel over long distances with smooth handoffs from one location to another that Wi-Fi connectivity simply can't provide.

Although DigitalBridge's WiMAX networks won't be built in any area as challenging as western Washington, they will be built in three different locations thousands of miles apart in Idaho, Indiana and Mississippi. DigitalBridge cofounder Bill Wallace says that his company applied to all of the grants for each project separately to make the case that WiMAX would benefit each individual county on its own merits. The project will involve building 16 new antenna sites in Idaho to cover 52,000 people, three sites in Indiana to cover 7,000 people and ten sites in Mississippi to cover 17,000 people.

Wallace says customers in the coverage area will be able to pay $30 a month for fixed WiMAX services that offer download speeds of up to 4Mbps, and that they can pay an additional $15 a month for a USB device they can put on their laptops to give them portable access to the WiMAX network. DigitalBridge will also be offering wholesale access to the network for any local ISPs in the area that want to offer their customers wireless Internet services of their own.

"It will cost under $350 per household to set up these WiMAX networks," Wallace says. "In terms of getting bang for your buck that's extremely attractive. It's a very efficient way to get broadband out there to places that need it the most."

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Tags wirelessNetworkingWiMaxat&tClearwireU.S. Department of AgricultureWiMAX & LTE

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