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Rural Areas Find Internet Answer in the Air
Wireless Connections Speedy but Can Be a Hassle

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.

She said that unreliable access to broadband puts whole stretches of the county at a disadvantage in recruiting businesses or employees.

"I think Loudoun County needs to look at broadband as being another utility as important as electricity and the telephone," she said.

In an effort to expand access, the county brought on a manager of broadband services last year. At the Board of Supervisors' request, Scott W. Bashore recently developed a plan to bring fiber-optic lines to every household in Loudoun. But the $320 million proposal has little prospect of offering a return on the investment, and he said the foreseeable future probably rests with wireless.

Now he's looking for ways to build more towers and transmitters, in part by offering incentives to companies, to help them grow and improve their services.

Lucketts.net has brought wireless Internet to 200 customers, mostly in Loudoun, but not without some hiccups, said founder Steve Acup. One customer lost his signal every day around 5:30 p.m. when a farmer would come in from haying his field and park his tractor in his wireless path. Another got a signal only when the hay loft doors of the barn across the field were open, he said.

Many residents still cannot get any service. Dougherty said he has to turn down about three in 10 potential customers because they are out of range or too deep in the trees.

John Westerman, co-owner of Loudoun Wireless, which has 250 customers in the northernmost part of the county, said his company likes to go after the tougher jobs for customers running out of hope.

Trees aren't always a deterrent. "It's more expensive to shoot through trees," he said, but using lower frequencies, it's sometimes possible.

All in all, the wireless service providers say, it's gratifying to bring broadband to rural places.

Westerman said one customer offered to erect a statue in his honor; another cried in gratitude.

"Dancing in circles is not an uncommon thing," Dougherty said. "People have been searching for broadband for years, and when they finally get it, they are just thrilled to death."

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