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.
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. (For The Washington Post)

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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:09 AM

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 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.

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