Berkshire Business Outlook: Can wireless broadband come to rescue of remote towns?

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From the rise of radio and TV to all that data flowing into cell phones, it's been a wireless world for decades.

But as a go-to source for rural broadband, wireless brings up the rear.

That's changing. Warwick, in eastern Franklin County, is building out a network that uses radio frequencies to speed internet connections throughout the 37-square-mile town.

A representative of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute likes the 25 megabits per second downloads Warwick's system provides.

"That might not have been true years ago, but it is today," said Bill Ennen, the last-mile liaison for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

After a long wait, a wireless remedy is in the running to connect a half dozen towns in Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties that have been waiting for years to join the digital age.

WiValley Inc., a 10-year-old, privately owned company in Keene, N.H., is in the running to create a five- or six-town wireless network that would deliver the Federal Communications Commission's broadband standard — 25 mbps downloads, 3 mbps uploads — for most customers.

It's not a done deal, but Brian Foucher, WiValley's president, is eager to get building this year.

From being at the back of the pack of unserved towns, residents of Florida and Savoy could see service start this year.

(Nonetheless, people should not yet call to sign up. If the WiValley bid moves forward, residents will be notified by their towns.)

While wireless can't compare to the staggering capacity of fiber-optic cable to move data, the technology is making gains. Its star is rising across the country, even with high-profile projects like Google Fiber.

Last year, after encountering high costs to lay fiber in several cities, Google Fiber moved to use wireless to deliver high-speed service in Louisville, Ky., a retreat from "industrial strength" fiber, according to reports in technology journals.

"In 10 years, the performance has gone way up even as the cost has dropped. It is now extremely affordable," said Stephen E. Harris, a tech writer and consultant in Middlefield who is a proponent of wireless and has aided broadband efforts in his hometown.

"Even in the last five years wireless has progressed by leaps and bounds. It's almost a no-brainer," Harris said.

WiValley's president still has hurdles to leap as his company pursues contracts with Florida and Savoy in Berkshire County and with Hawley and Monroe in Franklin County.

WiValley is also proposing service in Middlefield in Hampshire County— and if that flies, could court customers in Worthington, the next town over.

Harris is eager to see it roll out. He is helping to arrange a demonstration project to persuade wireless skeptics.

"In all fairness we need to show it, so we can demonstrate the efficacy of it," Harris said of wireless. "Hopefully we'll get this project going shortly. I am very optimistic about this. It's far more cost effective and it delivers excellent service."

The cost for 25/3 mbps connections would be $69.95 a month, according to WiValley's response to a state grant program notice. No local tax dollars would be spent in any of the towns.

LOW-COST DEBUT


Almost without trying, wireless networks bring down costs. They can be deployed rapidly, atop poles erected specifically for the electronic gear that relays signals.

Unlike fiber, there is no costly and time-consuming "make ready" process, in which network creators wait for public utilities to perform work on existing poles to create space in the "telecom zone."

WiValley's installation costs would be covered in full by state allocations.

In an interview at his company's Keene headquarters, Foucher, an engineer by training, described WiValley's proposed network design for Savoy, Florida, Hawley and Monroe.

The company shares space in a building that once made handles for paintbrushes, using New Hampshire forest products.

WiValley's system would position equipment at high elevations, including the Borden Mountain fire tower in Savoy and the Berkshire East ski area in Charlemont. Closer to customers, the network's devices would be placed on 30 new wooden utility poles that would be paid for with state grant dollars but owned by the towns themselves, according to Foucher. The poles would rise 42 to 68 feet above ground.

If getting service up and running was that simple, it would be here by now.

The challenge for broadband wireless comes in reaching premises hidden in low areas, valleys or hollows. The radio waves need "line of sight" connections, or close to them. To steer their signals in, network engineers can choose types of antennas and adjust frequencies. That can lower connection speeds, which is one downside of the service.

Foucher said that while higher-capacity radio frequencies will be employed on certain legs of the wireless network, able to move lots of data, other more limited frequencies must be used to get around trees and, in some cases, foliage. That includes elements of the "TV white space" known as UHF that the federal government is freeing up for telecommunications use, now that TV has gone digital.

"They're making more of that spectrum available in the next few years," Foucher said.

Improvements in wireless technology, Foucher says, are expected to help networks overcome challenges in reaching customers in the most out-of-the-way locations.

"It's going to keep getting better," he said.

But he isn't in sales mode. "As an engineer I want to under-promise and over-deliver."

On the new Massachusetts project, WiValley has teamed up with the Interisle Consulting Group, which was a lead designer on the state's $90 million middle-mile network, MassBroadband 123.

In New Hampshire, WiValley handles both wireless and fiber networks. It has customers in 50 communities in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. WiValley also worked as a contractor on Warwick's wireless expansion.

Foucher has dealt with the high cost of repairing fiber lines damaged by winter storms.

"That's why I'm in the wireless business," he said.

Ennen, the state's last-mile broadband liaison, notes that Westfield Gas & Electric, which is working with an array of Western Massachusetts towns on fiber projects, is consulting with vendors for possible wireless elements to its projects in the most rural towns.

"Sometimes the money just gets prohibitive," Ennen said of the cost of getting fiber to rural homes and businesses.

WiValley, riding high on positive responses from the towns, is working on a formal proposal.

When it comes, MBI and the towns will have to do their due diligence, in part by examining WiValley's credentials, Ennen said, "and figure out how to move forward."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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