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Rural Areas Find Internet Answer in the Air

Loudoun resident Richard Biby set up a station on his neighbors' property to relay a wireless Internet signal to his house. But it still didn't work, so he installed a second retransmitter and buried cable the last 400 feet or so.
Loudoun resident Richard Biby set up a station on his neighbors' property to relay a wireless Internet signal to his house. But it still didn't work, so he installed a second retransmitter and buried cable the last 400 feet or so. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

In the mid-1990s, Richard Biby started a company consulting for the wireless Internet and telecom industries. So it was particularly humbling when -- upon retiring to the country with his family and beginning a second career publishing a magazine about the radio tower industry -- he found himself, a grown man nearing 40, dialing up.

"I used to go to Starbucks and use overpriced WiFi and get depressed that I had made a mistake" moving there, he said.

He believed it was worth some sacrifice to live amid the Appalachian foothills in the historic Loudoun County village of Waterford, but the Arlington native was not about to give up his ability to upload big documents, work at home or provide his children with computer games, all within the confines of their rustic home.

His plight has been shared by many other newcomers to the rural outskirts of Washington who might not mind driving a bit farther for milk but cannot face life without speedy Internet access. Biby resolved that he would find a connection, even if it meant engineering his own wireless network.

In Loudoun, home to America Online and MCI, 15,000 households -- about 17 percent of the total -- cannot get access to broadband. Most of these homes are in the less populous western part of the county, where phone and cable companies are reluctant to invest in networks without a critical mass of ready customers.

For years the only way to access the Internet there was through a dial-up modem, or later, through expensive and often slow satellite service. But in recent years, a handful of companies and cooperatives selling wireless high-speed Internet service have come online.

These businesses have brought broadband service to many who thought there was no hope, but they have not been able to help everyone. For wireless service to work, a direct line of sight from the transmitter to the antenna is needed. In a mountainous, wooded area, that can be difficult.

With even the slightest prospect of broadband, some residents have gone to extremes to attain it, moving mountains or at least finding innovative ways to get around them, said Martin Dougherty, chief executive of Roadstar, a wireless Internet service provider that serves nearly 1,400 customers in western Loudoun through a network of 80 transmitters, often posted on rooftops, silos and barns.

Biby knew that his house, which was nestled in a valley and surrounded by locust and chestnut trees, was going to be difficult for radio waves to reach. So he found the highest point around: a greenhouse in the middle of his neighbor's field. From the top of its tin roof, he could see -- plain as day -- a radio tower that had a wireless transmitter.

With the help of Roadstar, he turned the organic vegetable garden next door into a high-speed Internet hub. He installed an antenna and a retransmitter. To power them, he bought two $700 solar panels and a few battery packs.

From there, it would be possible transmit the signal to some neighbors, but he still could not send it to his house. So he installed a second retransmitter on a tree trunk on his property and buried cable the last 400 feet or so to his office.

"We have this wonderful modern technology, and you can't even use it unless you can bounce things off barn silos," said Rita Mace Walston, general manager of the Herndon-based Telework Consortium, which helps companies set up work-from-home programs -- an impractical, if not impossible feat in some parts of Loudoun.

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