Note: This is the first in a multi-post series about rural broadband. Please add wirelesscowboys.com to your RSS feed or keep coming back for the rest of the series.
The Story of Medicine Bow: A Parable of Rural Broadband
Medicine Bow, Wyoming is a town of 275 hardy souls on the high plains of Southeastern Wyoming. Medicine Bow sits in a draw surrounded by ranchland and giant wind turbines, and the main attraction in town is the Virginian Hotel, made famous by one of the first Western cowboy novels. Isolation is the norm in Medicine Bow. It is a good 90 minute drive to the nearest Wal-Mart, in Laramie, and you are not going to find any strip malls, fast foot places or soccer fields in the town. Until recently you were also not going to find broadband Internet access.
This is not the first time Medicine Bow has been bypassed. Once a popular destination on the Lincoln Highway, the towns fortunes dwindled when Interstate 80 was routed 40 miles to the south. Medicine Bow saw its economy decline after being bypassed by the Interstate, but has made a little bit of a recovery lately with the surge of interest in wind energy. The town is literally surrounded by giant wind turbine farms that take advantage of Medicine Bow’s status as one of the windiest places in the United States. Despite the isolation and rugged natural environment, there is a lot of optimism and a strong sense of self sufficiency among the residents.
My first experience with Medicine Bow came in 2003. I was running an ISP in Laramie, WY, and my partner and I decided to go on a road trip to check out the towns near Laramie. After going through Rock River and Medicine Bow, we decided that it was a scenic drive, but there was little opportunity in these towns. Anything going in this direction was going to take a lot of work and it did not appear that there would be enough population to support an expansion. When I started looking at the costs to get backbone into Medicine Bow, it looked like there were even more roadblocks that would prevent us from being successful.
The Failure of the Middle Mile
At several points along Highway 287 from Laramie to Medicine Bow, there are fenced in compounds next to the road. These are fiber regeneration stations, typically installed every 18 miles along a long distance fiber line,that boost and reprocess the light going through the fibers. In 2003, the network was owned by McLeod USA, and after a few ownership changes, it is currently owned by Level 3. A fiber regen station sits just outside of Medicine Bow next to the railroad tracks. Although it is technically quite simple to “break out” capacity at a fiber regen station, this is not a common practice in rural areas, and the pricing structure for this kind of connectivity is so unrealistic that it essentially prohibits any kind of economically self-sufficient project from being considered.
In Medicine Bow, a 1.5megabyte T1 connection, the absolute bare bones that could even be considered to feed a tiny broadband deployment, costs ~$1300 per month and is only available from two carriers. A 45meg connection is $7500/month, with a $1500 installation charge. By comparison, T1s in nearby Laramie are as little as $ 400/month – and you can get commercial 6meg down/1meg up DSL connections for around $125/month. The real whopper was the cost for Ethernet connectivity on the fiber network that goes through the regen station just outside of town. $12,000 to $14,000/month for a 10megabit Ethernet connection. A whopping $1400/meg! My call to Level3 was met with near disbelief from the sales rep, who couldn’t believe his eyes when the pricing came back. Despite the grand pronouncements on the Level3 website that proclaim their “Wireless Tower Access Service” it is very clear that this service is geared only to cell phone carriers. Independent ISPs need not bother.
The final alternative was to look at building our own facilities to connect Medicine Bow to our network in Laramie, 60 miles away. At that time (2003-2004), the backhaul equipment we used was only good for 18 to 20 mile links, cost about $4000 per link and had a maximum speed of 8 meg. Customer radios cost $200-$350 per radio and had a range limit of about 8 miles or so. Not counting the costs of the towers, the cost to expand in that direction was going to be about $15000 for the backhaul radios, another $10,000 or so for the access points and $250 per customer for the radios needed to deliver a service that would most likely only be able to top out at 1meg or so for each customer. So figure about $25,000 for the equipment alone, not considering tower rental, bandwidth loop charges or labor.
If Medicine Bow was to get any kind of broadband, middle mile connectivity was the first hurdle to be dealt with.