Three months have gone by since we put the first customer online in Medicine Bow. Between the three towns in the deployment, we have added about 40 new subscribers and have another ten or so on the schedule for installation. We added a repeater in Medicine Bow to get around some trees in the middle of town and a repeater in Hanna to cover part of the town that was shadowed by a hill. Combined with the original three access points, we should be able to serve up to 250 customers if all five access points fill up.
Assuming we don’t have any major service issues, I expect the word of mouth to get around and we should have steady growth for a while as the people with satellite and dsl contracts wait for their contracts to expire before trying the wireless out. Some people in the area were paying as much as $250/month to have two satellite connections. On satellite, if the user exceeds a certain threshold for downloads, the system will slow to a crawl until the end of the month, hence the need for the second satellite system. Nearly everyone is picking up the 1meg or 2meg plans, and VOIP service is eagerly anticipated.
Even though the system has only been online for a few months, it has already made a big impact on the towns. The owner of the Virginian now has wifi available in his lobby for the travelers, hunters and energy industry workers that stay in his hotel. Two local website designers have ditched their $250/month satellite bills for a $50/month wireless connection that is far faster than the satellite and doesn’t slow down when they use more than 10gig of bandwidth in a month. Several people are planning on applying for telecommuting jobs that they couldn’t get without a broadband connection. A couple of video cameras have been installed by business owners, traversing the wireless connection back to their monitors at home. I even fielded a call from an economic development person who had heard Medicine Bow now had broadband and might have some prospects to send in their direction. Our new installer was doing more business than he expected, and many of the locals in Medicine Bow know him by name and when he will be in town.
Delivering broadband to Medicine Bow is not going to be a huge moneymaker, but I consider the project to be a success. Total cost to deploy the network was approximately $12,000 or about the same cost as the man-hours required to complete the Community Connect grant application. We didn’t need to get any government assistance or ongoing subsidies to make the project work, and after the initial equipment investment is paid off, the system will be profitable with as few as ten subscribers. It is already economically sustainable and generating a small profit along with myriad benefits for the residents of Medicine Bow, Hanna and Rock River.
If there had been a bounty for deploying broadband to an unserved area, I would have considered the project earlier. It also would have been helpful to have access to low interest, government guaranteed loans instead of having to put up money out of cash flow to fund the project. We have had other successful low interest, guaranteed loan projects, and that type of funding assistance would have helped considerably – and the money would have gone back into the funding source as the loan was paid off. Unfortunately, the USDA will only lend to a single telecom provider in an area, locking everyone else out of the program. Most of the smaller phone companies are already USDA borrowers, reducing the potential for competition. Any incentive for broadband should also consider the demand side of the equation, such as a rebate program for the installation of broadband. $150 for installation is a lot of money in the tight economy of a rural area, but if the user could get that money back it would help drive up market penetration. If the broadband stimulus program had provisions for smaller projects with dollar sizes in the tens of thousands instead of millions, with less paperwork overhead and bounties for delivering access to unserved areas, we would be a lot farther ahead.
The story of Medicine Bow is just one of many that have been told or are still being written across the United States and around the world. In rural America, unserved urban areas and places ravaged by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, WISPs are delivering on the promise of broadband to everyone and doing it without the benefit of government support, dedicated spectrum or a favorable regulatory environment. A little love for the broadband “freedom fighters” is probably in order.
While the project is essentially done, and the goal of delivering broadband to Medicine Bow has been accomplished, the work of a WISP is never completely done. There was one more port available in the last backhaul radio on the farthest tower. There was one more antenna in the back of the trailer. We hooked it up and pointed it at the next hill on the horizon. Google Earth shows some more homes out there that don’t have any broadband service. There will always be one more hill down the road.
I hope there is a tower on it.