Telecom Recipes - Improvising Broadband Access In Rural Areas
by Brian McConnell
Broadband Internet service, either via DSL or cable, is generally most economical to deliver in densely populated areas. DSL is distance sensitive, and generally only feasible within three miles of the nearest central office switch. Since utility companies are not mandated to provide high speed Internet service the way they are required to provide basic telephone service, there are many regions where broadband service is not available, and probably won't be anytime soon.
Fortunately there are a number of ways to provide improvised broadband or "middleband" Internet service without waiting years from your friendly local telephone monopoly to get around to offering service in your neighborhood.
While DSL is not widely available, most carriers offer ISDN Basic Rate telephone service, and in some cases an ISDN-like flavor of DSL called ISDL. It can be offered in a lot of situations where DSL will not work, and is generally supported by most telephone switches since ISDN was part of the plan to digitize the telephone network in the 1980s.
A single ISDN BRI circuit delivers 128kbps, and in some configurations 144kbps. Like dial-up connections, these can be combined into virtual circuits using inverse multiplexing (most videoconferencing terminals use this technique to combine 2 to 4 ISDN circuits into a single virtual circuit to allow high quality video calls).
ISDN is not cheap, and costs as much as or more than a standard analog telephone line. However, it is a significant improvement over dial-up, offering more than twice the downstream bandwidth, and nearly four times as much upstream bandwidth.
Obviously DSL is a better choice if it's available, but it often isn't, whereas ISDN may be.
NOTE: I once ran an electronic commerce website (PhoneZone, now part of Hello Direct) off a 128kbps ISDN line in San Francisco circa 1996. DSL service was not available at that time, and a T1 connection would set you back $2,000/month or more. It wasn't fast, but it worked.
If ISDN isn't an option, satellite television providers also provide high speed data service to rural areas. Satellite service can provide download speeds in excess of 400Kbps (sometimes in excess of 1Mbps with some providers).
Satellite Internet service has been around for quite a while. Hughes, the owner of DirecTV, released a service called DirecPC several years ago. This was a one-way/dial-return service, meaning the download was delivered via sateliite, while the uplink was delivered via a standard ISP connection. Using this arrangement, DirecPC could provide download speeds of around 400kbps, however upload speed were limited to that of the dial-up connection.
Two-way satellite service is now available, in which both the uplink and downlink are delivered via satellite, with uplink speeds in the neighboor of 100kbps, and downlink speeds of 400kbps or better if the system is properly configured. DirecWay, Hughes latest offering, is priced at approx $60/month for home users.
If you live out in the boonies, or off the grid altogether, satellite is now a viable way to get reasonably fast Internet connectivity.
NOTE: one major problem with satellite service is significant latency due to the round trip time required for the signal to travel 44,000 miles to the satellite and back (this adds 250 milliseconds of delay). Not a problem for an email or file transfer, but this is definitely a problem if you want to do multiplayer gaming or voice over IP.
The cost of upgrading fixed-line facilities in rural areas is an impediment to providing universal broadband service in these regions. Wireless access, however, can cost orders of magnitude less to deliver.
A rural telephone cooperative or ad hoc community organization can easily muster the resources to build a broadband wireless network using off the shelf wireless networking gear.
While Wi-Fi networks are limited to a distance of a few hundred feet, this is because they generally use omnidirectonal antennas. By refitting wireless access points and repeaters with directional antennas that throw signals in spot beams akin to flashlights, it is possible to greatly extend their range, sometimes to several miles.
A detailed discussion of wireless community networks is beyond the scope of this article (for that I recommend Rob Flickenger's book Building Wireless Community Networks). However, the general recipe is fairly straightforward.
1) Identify one or more locations in your community where someone can get reasonably priced broadband service (e.g. T-1, Cable, DS-3), pool resources across the user community to pay for the links.
2) Use directional antennas and repeaters to build a wireless mesh network out from these terrestrial links to sites that wish to share them. For example, by mounting parabolic antennas and repeaters on the sides of homes, one can relay a wireless link, in bucket brigate fashion from house to house, several miles along a sparsely populated valley.
The challenge with this approach is that it requires the participation of people throughout a community to work. However, given that the alternative may be waiting years for the local telephone or cable company to offer high-speed service, this may be the best option (as well as a fun project).
Do you have any suggestions or vendors you'd like to recommend? Post your remarks here...
There is another wireless broadband option.
In some areas of the country there is wireless broadband provided by an ISP. For an example see:
I use this service and it uses a smallish (1 foot, .3 meter square) line-of-sight antenna that can be mounted on the roof or side of the house. Available in 256k, 512k, and 768k and competitive with DSL pricewise.
Another satellite option is rolling out soon. See wildblue.com. Based on the problems my parents have had with DirecWay satellite service, I'm definitely considering switching. Wildblue's equipment and protocols are based on cable modems, which should be much lower cost than the older Hughes equipment.
With communications companies finally employing more and more useage of fiber, we are beginning to move towards servicing more and more towns, cities, "BFE" type places. Don't get me wrong, it's not happening as fast as we'd like, but the footprint of these companies is expanding exponentially. VoIP, internet, and other broadband services is currently driving many former "video only" cable companies, opening our eyes and opening many options. My opinion is possibly skewed since I work for a communications company, but I have seen hundreds of thousands of houses in rural areas that have been recently added. Many "Farmer John's" now rely on e-mail instead of snail mail.
I have also seen some rural areas that have shared a small mom and pop communications system from one centralized hub, which can easily be added and/or converted to offer broadband services. Even electric companies are currently testing broadband through the power lines. As odd and unbelieveable as it seems, from what I have read and heard they may be close to making this work. Whether or not it's financially viable may be another topic.