Bypassing the big guys to get broadband


Paul Conlin, owner of Blaze Broadband outfits a house in rural Warrenton, VA with broadband using a reflector dish and a digital 2-way radio to receive a signal from a tower on an adjacent hillside. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Paul Conlin, the proprietor of Blaze Broadband, is not a typical telecom executive. He drives a red pickup and climbs roofs. When customers call tech support, he is the one who answers.

Conlin delivers broadband to Fauquier County homes bypassed by Comcast and Verizon, bouncing wireless signals from antennae on barns, silos, water towers and cellphone poles.

By some measures, he is a local hero.

“I don’t know how Paul does it,” said John Chierichella, a District lawyer who struggled for years without reliable broadband. “I don’t really care. All I know is I get service now.”

County officials estimate that 60 percent of Fauquier’s residents have been bypassed by big telecoms because they don’t live in populous clusters that make building broadband infrastructure cost-effective. Although the Obama administration has plans to close the digital divide for the 10 percent of the U.S. population without broadband access, many living within that gap in Fauquier think the problem will be theirs to solve.

“The big guys are just not going to come out here and serve all of us,” said Peter Schwartz, a county supervisor who places one hand on his refrigerator to get a stable cellphone signal in his home. “We are going to have to solve this problem creatively ourselves.”

Fauquier might be 45 miles from the White House, but many residents can’t look at WhiteHouse.gov in their homes. So officials, fearful the county won’t qualify for broadband infrastructure grants because of its high median income, are pushing to expand homegrown services such as Conlin’s. “This is one of the ways that a small entrepreneur can do what the big boys are unwilling to do,” said Paul McCulla, the county administrator. “That’s the reality of the situation we face here.”

A former automotive engineer, Conlin became interested in so-called canopy wireless Internet service out of frustration that he couldn’t get broadband at home. The costs to bring the bandwidth to his house were high, so he connected his neighbors’ homes and had them share the costs.

Knowing others would be jealous, Conlin tried to keep the setup quiet. But the Internet is hard to keep locked in a box. Soon, people across the county heard he had broadband, and they began to whisper in his ear when they saw him: “Can you get me the Internet?”

Sensing an opportunity, Conlin started Blaze Broadband in 2006 and became one of nearly 3,000 wireless Internet service providers, or WISPs, across the country. WISPs provide broadband Internet service to more than 2 million homes, often in rural towns or counties. The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association lists eight operators in Virginia and four in Maryland.

A neighborhood network

Using equipment made by Motorola and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, WISPs buy broadband capacity from providers in nearby jurisdictions with widespread high-speed infrastructures. They connect the signal to microwave antennae placed in high spots and then beam to small antennae on home rooftops.

Conlin’s job is part geographer, part roof climber, part engineer, part tech support and part community organizer. If a house is blocked from his signal, he reaches out to neighbors to become conduits for his signal, offers them discounts for their own service and gets everyone hooked up. He is rarely turned down.

“People want to help each other out,” Conlin said. “We are all a part of this community, and we want the Internet.”

Take the experience of Ellie Spencer. She had no idea her house, high on a ridge in Fauquier County, was digitally advantageous until a neighbor phoned one afternoon with a peculiar request. Would she take a call, the neighbor wondered, from her friend Conlin, a local fellow who needed her roof?

Spencer, who needed reliable broadband Internet service herself, took the call. What Conlin wanted: to beam an Internet signal to her roof, then redirect it to a house below hers in the gorgeous, rolling hills just outside Warrenton.

And that’s how the Chierichella family got the Internet. “I should send her a Christmas card,” Shannon Chierichella said in her back yard, looking up at Spencer’s home. “This really has changed our lives.”

The Chierichellas went through several unreliable satellite services before Spencer, high up the ridge, came to the rescue. Back in their satellite provider days, John Chierichella often would try to work at home, but the service would crash, so he’d get in his car and head east.

Having reliable high-speed Internet service has allowed him to work from home a couple of days a week instead of sitting in Interstate 66 traffic for hours that seem like days. “I don’t have that anxiety anymore of waking up and wondering if the Internet is going to work,” John Chierichella said.

Conlin, 42, rides around Fauquier in his big red pickup, and he has made it his business to know the location of most of its towering trees; they can block his signal. “They are beautiful and I love them, but they cause me a lot of headaches,” he said the other day, winding along the county’s bumpy roads.

Blaze Broadband download speeds can hit 10 megabits per second, which is on par with or slower than traditional telecoms, depending on signal strength and plan. Monthly service is about $89, and there is a one-time $329 installation fee. Conlin has pre-qualified homes for real estate agents who worry houses won’t sell when buyers check to see whether Comcast or Verizon service is available.

“The Internet I get from him is the fastest I have had anywhere,” said Suzanne Corbett. “I would have been miserable had I not found his service. And if there’s a problem, you leave a message and he actually calls you back.”

Knowing the territory

Conlin has closely studied where every house in Fauquier is and what broadband services are available. Out of the 25,000 structures in the county, Conlin calculates that about half are without digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable Internet service. Conlin currently serves about 300 of them and is working with county officials to expand faster.

For those who aren’t yet served by Conlin’s company or can’t afford the fees, there are other options, some more palatable than others. Those who have good cellphone signals — a rarity — can buy wireless broadband cards, an option Verizon often offers in lieu of expanding DSL service, but there are expensive overage charges. (The Obama administration also is pushing the high-speed cellular route.)

Many residents camp out in downtown Warrenton at Panera Bread or Borders Books to surf the Internet, post Facebook updates or order presents on Amazon. Library officials, who found in a recent survey of 692 people that roughly half didn’t have traditional broadband access, have reported a surge in people using computers at their facilities.

“Some people go out for ice cream,” said Margaret Seaman, who was recently filing her taxes using Panera’s wi-fi. “We go out to use the Internet.”

The other day, Ed Randolph, who has only dial-up access at home, was using Mapquest on one of the six computer terminals at the Warrenton library. He needed to find a courthouse in Fairfax in order to pay a traffic ticket.

“Usually you have to wait in line to use one of these computers,” said Randolph, 65. “They are in high demand.”

Nearby, 27-year-old Sarah Hunt updated her Facebook page. Asked what she would do without high-speed access at the library, she said, “I would go crazy.” She did not seem to be joking.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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