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CONNECTIVITY IN THE COUNTRY: Rural Internet service

0210
 2015


J.W. Breeden, who founded LiveAir Networks when he was in college, shows a map of his company’s service area. LiveAir has more than 2,000 subscribers in the Bluebonnet region. (Jay Godwin photo)

By Kathy Warbelow

When Smithville High School’s band director was laid up with a broken ankle last year, he didn’t miss a beat. Using his district-issued iPad at home, Wayne King used FaceTime and Skype video phone call software to listen to rehearsals and give instructions to his assistants. 
 
Third-graders at Smithville Elementary have shared classes once a month with their peers at a Pennsylvania school, thanks to videoconferencing technology. Their first assignment, using only clues their teachers provided, such as weather, was to figure out where the other school was. 
 
Smithville High students have watched presentations on topics such as anatomy from university experts in other states. 
 
A few years ago, none of this would have been possible for the 1,700-student district, which had very limited Internet capacity. But seven years ago, the district switched to LiveAir Networks, a local company that provides high-speed Internet service over a fiber optic cable network — the same technology that companies such as AT&T and Google use for their most advanced Internet service. That has allowed distance learning and other classroom technology, said Ana Murray, who oversees instructional technology for the district. 
 
“The Smithville community, and certainly the school board, realizes the importance of technology and its contribution to create a student who can compete in both a local and global market when they graduate,” Rock McNulty, the district superintendent, said in an email. 
 
That kind of advanced service is not an option in most rural areas. Across the country, rural residents’ options for high-speed Internet service are much more limited and more expensive than in cities — even as broadband Internet becomes a must-have, not just a convenience, for individuals, schools, local governments, health care providers and businesses. 
 
Broadband is about how much data — such as photos, documents or videos — can flow through an Internet connection at any one time, like cars on a highway. The more lanes, the more cars the road can handle. The more capacity, or bandwidth, a connection has, the more bits of digital data it can transmit. 


(Jay Godwin photo)Bryce Crowell, a senior at Smithville High School, uses an iPad to stream live video of a basketball game between his school and Manor High School. The Smithville school district upgraded its Internet connection several years ago, and live streams a variety of student events so family members can watch from work or home.
 
Old-fashioned dial-up Internet access had bandwidth with as little as 56,000 bits of data, or 56 kilobits, per second. 
 
The standard measure these days is done in megabits – 1 million bits of digital data per second, abbreviated as Mbps. 
 
Broadband is not just about downloading a movie from Netflix, posting photos on Facebook or opening websites without irritating delays. That speed is crucial for companies to do business with customers and suppliers. Health care providers use it for telemedicine — for example, sharing CT scans with specialists in another city to get an expert opinion. Modern electronic books could not exist without it. 
 
“How can you even do homework without broadband?” asked Angela Ryan, assistant director of the Bastrop Economic Development Corp. 
 
“It’s like water and electricity. Broadband is just as important,” she said. “It’s huge from an economic development standpoint.” 
 
She said having high-speed fiber Internet service at the city’s industrial park has been a selling point for the project, which is at the juncture of Texas highways 71, 95 and 21. 
 
In 2013, Ryan led a community task force that assessed Bastrop County’s broadband access and needs, and developed actionable goals. That effort made the county the first in Texas to win “connected community” certification from Connected Texas, a nonprofit that collects broadband data to identify underserved areas and helps communities develop strategies. To earn the recognition, the county had to achieve certain scores based on national benchmarks in areas such as broadband adoption, including availability of public computing centers, and the use of broadband in education. 
 
“Not that long ago, there still were communities that were not sure they really needed broadband. Now I never have that conversation,” said Don Shirley, executive director of the organization, part of a national network of state organizations. “Now it’s, ‘Why don’t we, and when will we?’ Then we get into what they can do about it.” 
 
The conversation also is changing at the national level. In December, the Federal Communications Commission increased from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion the money available every year to help schools and libraries upgrade Internet service to take advantage of digital technology in the classroom. The FCC said only 14 percent of rural and poor schools nationally have broadband service equal to what the Smithville schools enjoy — 100 megabits per second. 
 
This year, the FCC also will hand out grants totaling $100 million for a separate rural broadband experiments initiative. The money will go to providers that submitted the best ideas for cost-effective ways to extend broadband Internet to hard-to-serve areas. 
 
A larger amount will be available in the next round of the initiative. 
 
However, federal money for Connected Texas’ Internet mapping operation ran out at the end of 2014, and continued state support for the nonprofit’s other services, including helping rural communities assess their needs and plan for high-speed Internet, will be up to the current Texas Legislature.
 
A PATCHWORK OF PROVIDERS 
 
Broadband Internet service in Bluebonnet’s 14-county service area is a patchwork of dozens of providers that use varying technology to deliver Internet service, including satellite, phone lines and wireless service, with the signal relayed via microwaves. 
 
AT&T’s high-speed U-verse service is available in parts of Manor, for example, and Time Warner provides cable Internet service in Bastrop. But in smaller towns and remote areas, the options quickly shrink. Some small independent providers serve a very limited area and simply don’t have the financial resources to build and maintain sophisticated networks. 
 
In some cases, the service available may fall below the FCC’s standard for broadband — data download speeds of at least 4 megabits a second. 
 
The big providers focus their attention and investment in urban areas, where they can make more money. 
 
The economics are straightforward: On average, rural providers serve areas with seven customers per square mile, compared to 130 customers per square mile for urban providers, according to the Rural Broadband Association. The organization represents 900 providers across the country, ranging from tiny companies with perhaps 100 customers and $100,000 in annual revenue to others with 50,000 customers and millions in revenue. 
 
If they do have broadband access, rural residents generally pay 15 to 20 percent more for it, even though they often have slower speeds and data usage caps, said Shirley of Connected Texas. 
 
In some cases, telephone cooperatives have stepped in to cover areas that larger providers ignore. 
 
“We are the carrier of last resort,” said Scott Martin, general manager of Colorado Valley Communications, a co-op that serves La Grange, Smithville, Fayetteville, Ellinger, Weimar and Schulenburg. The co-op provides service up to 8 megabits per second using telephone lines — called DSL, or direct subscriber line — or so-called fixed wireless, with a signal transmitted from its facility to an antenna on a customer’s home or business. 
 
“We added Internet service because that’s where the market was telling us the demand was,” Martin said. “We wanted to provide affordable Internet for our subscribers – not for the entertainment, but for the economic development.” 
 
Satellite service is another alternative for remote areas, as long as the customer’s home or ranch has a clear line of sight to the southern sky. 
 
“Our dishNET service is really targeted at customers who have no other options,” said Brian McIntyre, vice president of broadband for Dish Network. The company, based in Englewood, Colo., has 553,000 broadband customers nationwide and 14 million pay-TV customers. 
 
The service offers speeds up to 10 megabits per second, with data usage caps that vary depending on the plan a customer chooses. 
 
Mobile broadband, using the same technology as cellphones, is another option for rural areas where it’s not cost-effective for companies to invest in expensive infrastructure such as cable or fiber optic networks. But the signal may be spotty in areas, depending on the provider’s cellphone tower network. 
 
LiveAir Networks, based in Smithville, is the exception among rural providers: a family-owned, local company with an advanced broadband network that can deliver speeds equal to what the biggest companies offer. 
 
J.W. Breeden was still in college in 2004 when he started the company from his parents’ house, using a business plan he had created while attending Smithville High School. The company started with fixed wireless broadband, relayed via microwave to customers from a transmitter on top of the Smithville water tower. 
 
That service still is available, with speeds up to 15 megabits per second. 
 
But Breeden wanted to give rural customers access to the best technology, and that meant building a fiber-optic network. The thin strands of glass, hundreds or thousands of them in a single cable, can transmit more data at a time than copper phone lines or conventional coaxial cable. 
 
In late 2013, LiveAir began offering fiber broadband service in some areas, with speeds from 50 megabits per second up to 1 gigabit, or 1 billion bits per second. That was months before AT&T or Google started promoting their 1 gigabit service in parts of Austin. 


(Jay Godwin photo)First-graders at Brown Primary School got a pre-Christmas treat: an interactive visit with Mrs. Santa Claus, who read a story and answered their questions. It’s another example of how the Smithville school district uses the Internet to create new experiences for students.
 
Most individuals don’t need that much capacity; serious online gamers are one exception. But it’s relevant for businesses — downloading large files takes just seconds. And 1 gigabit has become the new benchmark for Internet speeds, as well as a platform for new applications yet to be developed. 
 
“We build technology to enable people to take advantage of what’s coming next,” Breeden said.
 
LiveAir now has more than 2,000 subscribers, both wireless and fiber optic, Breeden said, in a service area that covers most of Bastrop, Fayette and Lee counties and parts of four other counties. It also leases access to its fiber network on a wholesale basis to other providers, which have thousands more customers. 
 
“So we’re a 19-person company with a network that serves 50,000 people,” he said. 
 
One LiveAir customer is Lee County government, which is expanding its LiveAir services to more offices this year. That will enable the courthouse to implement electronic filing and allow residents to vote at any precinct, not just where they’re registered — “a big convenience,” said Hilary Kieschnick, administrative assistant to County Judge Paul Fisher, who has championed the change. 
 
The county also will save a lot of money by switching from landline phones to calls delivered over the Internet, she said. 
 
County residents will see the difference: “Now, if you call the wrong office, we have to tell you to hang up and call a different number. With the new service, we can just transfer you.” 
 
Breeden said LiveAir is expanding its fiber network. In December, the company was hanging fiber cable in Flatonia. 
 
“We’re not stopping,” he said. 
 
Small, family-owned providers have been an Internet lifeline for rural communities, said Michael Romano, senior vice president of policy for the Rural Broadband Association in suburban Washington, D.C. 
 
“In a number of places, smaller providers have made terrific progress, doing everything they can to push broadband deeper into their networks over the last 10 years,” he said. The issues now, he said, “are how to keep it there and keep it affordable, and then how do we extend service to underserved areas.
 

THE NEED FOR SPEED

 
It’s not about how fast your computer runs. 
 
The time you spend waiting for a webpage to appear, the speed at which that YouTube video will load on your laptop, the pace at which you can email the Christmas photo of the family to a dozen relatives, or whether you’ll ever see ‘House of Cards’ on Netflix is determined by how much data your Internet connection can transmit at any one time. That capacity is also called bandwidth, which is measured in units of data called bits. 
 
Broadband Internet service must be at least 4 megabits of data per second (or Mbps), according to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is considering raising the standard to 10 Mbps. 
 
Internet providers cite the maximum capacity for each connection. But the actual capacity can vary, depending on how many people are using a connection at the same time, your distance from the provider’s central hub and other factors. 
 
Old-fashioned dial-up service over telephone lines would move data at about 56 kilobits per second. AOL still has 2.3 million dial-up customers, according to a 2014 article in Fortune magazine. In 2013, about 2 percent of Americans still used dial-up service at home, compared to 70 percent using broadband service, according to the Pew Research Institute’s Internet Project. 
 
Some business-only providers can move 1 gigabit of data — or 1 billion bits — per second. At that capacity, streaming highdefinition movies, video conferencing and fast downloading or uploading of large files by many users at the same time is a breeze. 
 
See the diagram below to see how bandwidth affects your ability to stream movies or download music.


(Sources: National Broadband Maps; Netflix) 

THE INTERNET IN BLUEBONNET TERRITORY

 
Many rural providers typically serve limited areas and offer slower speeds than the major companies. For example, 768 Kbps is fine for reading email and handling basic Internet functions, but loading a website is slower. 
 
Those rural providers’ highest speeds usually are available only to businesses that can afford access to a fiber network. 
 
The chart below shows Internet providers’ bandwidth ranges in the Bluebonnet service area, from lowest to highest available, combining all providers in a county. The range for individual providers will differ, depending on the type of service they offer. 

Some providers offer service to both residents and businesses; others serve only commercial and institutional customers, which need the highest bandwidth.


(Source: Connected Texas, as reported by providers; data as of October 2014)Internet bandwidth ranges in Bluebonnet territory
 

THE 7 TYPES OF BROADBAND SERVICE 

 
DSL: Digital subscriber line service, such as from AT&T, uses copper phone lines to deliver Internet service. Speeds may be slower if the home or business is far from a telephone hub. 
 
Cable: Providers such as Time Warner use the same coaxial cables as your television service. Users can use the Internet and watch TV at the same time. 
 
Fixed wireless: Service is delivered via microwaves sent from the provider’s facility to antennas attached to homes, ranches and businesses. Heavy tree cover or hills may make locations unsuitable for fixed wireless. 
 
Mobile wireless: Uses the same technology used for cell phone service, such as 4G. It is typically slower than wired or fixed wireless options. Providers may impose caps on how much data you use and charge a premium for going above that level. 
 
Satellite: Is available in very rural and remote areas, as long as the location has a clear line of sight to the satellite. Bad weather can interrupt service. Service typically has data usage limits. 
 
Fiber optic: Internet service is provided by signals that travel across hair-thin strands of glass. Fiber offers the highest speeds — 1 gigabit per second and more — but is more expensive and availability is limited to areas where the provider has installed fiber cable. 
 
T1: Shorthand for Tier 1 service for businesses. T1 is a dedicated highcapacity line, typically fiber, that can carry large amounts of data. Sources: Federal Communications Commission; PC Magazine
 

BLUEBONNET’S FIBER-OPTIC NETWORKS: Connecting with meters and members

By Will Holford


(Jay Godwin photo)Bluebonnet’s control room is one of the co-op’s facilities linked by a sophisticated communications network that includes fiber-optic cables. Data transmitted via the communications network helps control room operators Max Baird, left, and Kim Bender maintain safe, reliable electric service to Bluebonnet’s members.
 
Fiber-optic communications networks are one way Bluebonnet’s members could gain access to high-speed, broadband Internet. 
 
But Bluebonnet uses its fiber-optic communications network for an entirely different purpose: It’s a crucial part of the system that sends and retrieves an enormous amount of data between the co-op’s nearly 87,000 meters, 45 substations, state-of-the-art control center and offices in six cities. 
 
Today, Bluebonnet’s fiber-optic communications network links its facilities in Bastrop and Giddings. The rest of the coop’s communications network consists of microwave and through-the-power-line communications links to its other facilities. 
 
A microwave link is wireless, like a radio, but capable of transmitting much more data. A fiber-optic cable is made of strands of glass and uses light to transmit data from one point to another. 
 
During the next five years, Bluebonnet will expand its fiber-optic network to more of its facilities. Fiber provides faster, more reliable communications. This will increase the amount of data and the speed at which it moves through the coop’s communications network, enabling Bluebonnet to provide more information to its members about their energy use. 
 
Fiber-optic communications are important for businesses like Bluebonnet. 
 
“Bluebonnet and other businesses are putting in their own fiber-optic networks, or leasing excess fiber from other private networks, to keep pace with technology and utilize it to the fullest extent,” said Grant Gutierrez, Bluebonnet’s chief technology officer. 
 
Gutierrez said access to high-speed, broadband Internet is equally important to consumers, too. 
 
“From a personal perspective, it’s a quality-of-life issue. The ability to access information is so pervasive today that broadband is nearly as important as reliable water and electricity,” Gutierrez said.
 

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