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WISPs bring the Internet to remote corners

Dave DeWitte, CR Gazette –

Wireless Internet service providers, long the savior of Internet users in underserved areas, are in a bandwidth race as wire-line Internet service providers spread into their markets.

Wireless Internet service providers, or WISPs, use portions of the radio spectrum to transmit data to and from the user’s location. They employ technologies such as WiMax, or Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access — a wireless wide-area network that can give Internet connectivity to computers in the way that global satellite mobility has given phone connectivity to mobile phones.

WISP service typically doesn’t offer the data transfer speeds of fiber-optic connections and some are not even as fast as the digital subscriber line connections that telephone companies offer. Customers typically often require an outside radio transmitter/receiver on their home or business to send and receive data.

SpeedConnect, a Saginaw, Mich.-based WISP, is aggressively improving its area service. It aims to add 11 new sites by the end of 2012, including sites serving outlying areas around Mount Vernon and Solon, Iowa.

“We’re in a business plan that will lead to 4G in Iowa and (the) Illinois side of the Quad Cities starting in 2012,” said Tony Lounsberry, general manager of SpeedConnect, which has its Iowa-Illinois headquarters in North Liberty.

The term 4G refers to the next generation of high-speed mobile technologies that will be used to replace 3G cellular networks.

WiMax is one of the technologies used to build 4G networks.

SpeedConnect serves a belt of Eastern Iowa from Williamsburg and Vinton eastward to the Quad Cities, using antennas on radio towers, TV towers and a few select water towers. It relies on the 2.5 and 2.6 gigahertz radio spectrum.

“We recently deployed WiMax with 4G capabilities in the thumb of Michigan,” Lounsberry said. “It can deliver speeds in excess of the cable companies with a mobility option.”

Lounsberry said the mobility option is a portable router that will provide a WiFi-like wireless Internet connection to as many as five devices.

A major difference between the WISP market in SpeedConnect’s home turf of Michigan and Iowa is the role of small independent Iowa telephone companies in the Iowa WISP market, Lounsberry said.

Two examples in the Corridor are Cloud 9 LLC and the Motorola Canopy service offered by Sharon Telephone Co.

Cloud 9 is a joint venture of West Liberty-based Liberty Communications and Kalona Cooperative Telephone Co.

Cloud 9 provides WISP service to about 600 customers in Keota, Washington, Sigourney, Kalona, Atalissa and Brighton and the surrounding rural areas. It uses the 2.5 gigahertz and 3.65 gigahertz spectrum and WiMax technology.

Sharon Telephone provides WISP service to about 90 subscribers in the Hills, Lone Tree and Ainsworth areas. It uses 900 megahertz radio transmitters and receivers in fixed locations.

Managers at both small companies say they got into the WISP business to fill a need.

“The main reason we’re doing it is that Windstream (formerly Iowa Telecom) at the present time, they’re just not taking their digital subscriber line service out into the rural areas,” said Michael Yoder, manager of Sharon Telephone.

Yoder and Jerry Melick, manager of Cloud 9 and president of Liberty Communications, both expect the incumbent telephone companies, CenturyLink and Windstream, to eventually push their digital subscriber line services out to unserved areas. That will force WISP providers to upgrade their technology or lose customers.

Affordable access to tower space is often the critical factor for rural telephone companies seeking to provide WISP service, according to Melick.

Melick said Cloud 9 and many other WISPs don’t have enough customers to pay the tower lease rates that many tower owners expect based on their use by cellular providers. So Cloud 9 is forced to get creative by leasing space on such high structures as municipal water towers and grain elevators.

“You just keeps looking, and it helps to have good software for signal modeling,” Melick said.

Sharon Telephone has access to about five cell towers through its stake in I-Wireless, and used them to advantage, Yoder said.

Circle Computer Resources in Cedar Rapids offers WISP service in a small pocket of southwest Cedar Rapids, on the north edge of Marion, in the eastern suburbs of Des Moines, and at some Coralville locations. It offers bandwidth packages from 768 kbps to 3 Mbps for residential customers and up to 10 Mbps for business customers.

Leo Kelly of Circle Computer said the company provides Internet service to more than 700 fast-food restaurants that use the service mainly to process credit-card transactions. Some of them are in locations unreached by land-based Internet service providers or don’t qualify for service from the local provider.

The company’s fixed wireless installations can cover almost 20 miles.

Circle Computer enjoys low customer turnover, which Kelly attributes to strong customer service. Most accounts end up being customers who can’t get service any other way, however, he added.

Satellite Internet providers haven’t been much competition for the WISPs due to bandwidth limitations. But Melick said he expects that to change in the near future as the satellite ISPs ramp up their offerings.

Beside competition from satellite and landline providers, WISPs are stepping up their game because of growing bandwidth needs of their customers.

Cloud 9, for example, offers packages at download speeds of 256 Kbps, 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps. Most customers seem to be taking the 3 Mbps offering, Melick said, because they want to stream movies.

KeyOn Communications, a national WISP that did not respond to requests for comment, also provides service in the Corridor through an acquisition from Dynamic Broadband.

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