Can the rural broadband curse finally be lifted in the US?

19 June 2012 | Tim Phillips

We return to the infinite woe of broadband customers in the rural US, and the equally infinite sadness of those who seek to provide it profitably.

Government policy for rural broadband in developed markets sets lawyer against economist against politician, nowhere more so than the US.

But even when the regulatory problems are sorted out, the engineering problems begin. Carlson Wireless CEO Jim Carlson points out that “in 2010, eight million rural homes did not have access to any broadband or cable… it’s still around 7.5 million. There is the problem of hills and mountains, foliage, so microwave cells start to become ridiculously small”.

This means few of the US’ wireless ISPs can, or want to, take advantage of a large potential market. If only someone would just come up with a technology to take advantage of unused wireless spectrum to create low-cost broadband networks without having to pay enormous licence fees to the government or install thousands of microwave towers, some of this would go away.

So, welcome then, RuralConnect, the service that answers some, at least, of these questions. Carlson Wireless is using white spaces for broadband. As broadcasters switch to digital television, their signals can be packed more tightly, and what Fortune Magazine calls “rural America’s great broadband hope” can use what’s left over, free of licence requirements. To everyone connected with RuralConnect’s relief, the FCC has decided there will be a guaranteed block of frequencies nationwide, available without a spectrum auction. Carlson Wireless uses the 470MHz frequency, which it claims has five times the range of microwave.

After three years of debate, there’s the faint possibility that the industry can sort this out without any big government subsidy. In partnership with UK-based tech developer Neul, Carlson has taken a working prototype, tested it by providing service to the Yurok Tribe in Humboldt County, California, put the devices into production, and now he’s taking orders from wireless ISPs. Currently the CPE can be made for about $600, though with volume production RuralConnect is hoping to halve that. Carlson, having taken the punt of developing a service ahead of the regulatory approval that made this possible, now takes regular calls from the big equipment manufacturers.

Lots of VC and outside investor money has already been burned by Carlson’s predecessors in trying to solve the rural broadband problem. “My mission is to see this to fruition,” Carlson says. Where rural broadband is concerned, that’s a career commitment.

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