The impact of high speed internet access can be seen on the balance sheets of traditional internet providers. More consumers are turning away from slower, so-called dial-up, services in favor of cheaper and faster access. AOL's gross earnings from its dial-up accounts have fallen by more than 20 percent from a year ago. Analysts expect that trend to continue as consumers turn to cable and phone companies for faster broadband service.
For Rural Americans the availability of high speed access remains elusive. But that is changing. While geography is still a factor in the delivery of broadband, a technology that is relatively new to the scene is becoming more viable and effective. Tyler Teske reports.
A few miles up the road from Keokuk, Iowa, nestled in a bluff next to the Mississippi river, is Orba-Johnson Transshipment company. While the location is ideal for moving coal from train cars to river barges, general manager Breen Turley claims telecommunications is another situation entirely.
Breen Turley, Orba-Johnson Transshipment: "We're at the end of the phone line and it is, we've had some real difficulties with it and we're in the position right now where our telephone line is okay but I don't think it would work reliably on a computer or Internet connection as a phone line."
Turley contends faxes are even a challenge and often do not transmit. The lack of not only high speed access, but any access at all, turned Turley to a wireless internet connection. The result is he can now reliably communicate with clients, and keep track of current energy, mining, rail, barge and electric utility business conditions. According to Turley, without the connection, discovering such information can be delayed by as much as three months.
Breen Turley, OJT: "It enables us to look at and perform strategic analysis of what we ought to do to improve services for our customers and of course our owners and everybody else that's involved."
Orba-Johnson receives Internet service from Interlink L-C, a company which has been providing wireless broadband internet access to southeast Iowa and regions within the contiguous states since 1998. Interlink L-C is one of many Internet service providers, or I-S-Ps, across the nation taking advantage of unlicensed spectrum, radio space anyone can use, provided they follow Federal Communications Commission rules. According to Interlink management, Keokuk was a perfect fit for the technology.
The communication troubles experienced by Orba-Johnson are an extreme case, but also representative of the region. Keokuk, a town of 13,000 people, is not a major metropolis. Residents who rely on land-based connections for their internet access do have two options: a 56k dialup via modem over phone lines which many of the county's residents claim are not entirely reliable, or, for more than fifteen-hundred dollars a month, a dedicated 1.5 megabit connection, or T1, an option sometimes used by businesses but rarely by the average consumer. And more recently cable modem access has popped up in town, but not county wide.
To fill the price and speed gap, Interlink provides wireless access at data rates that typically fall between dial up and T1 speeds at prices comparable to other broadband services such as DSL and cable modems.
Interlink C-E-O Brad Kline claims wireless is an economical option when compared to the cost involved in a wired infrastructure. He prices a brand new wireless ISP including authentication, web servers, email and a single access point at around 80 thousand dollars.
Brad Kline, Interlink LC: "So, cost effective? Very much so due to if you look at DSL service, the phone company has to put in a piece of equipment called a D slam, those start at about $300,000 and go up and they're limited at a three mile range."
Kline claims a well placed wireless antenna can cover at least a five mile circle.
Wireless can also be used as a connection between transmitters eliminating some cable runs, a savings of both money and time. Interlink claims they can setup a new wireless transmitter in 48 hours our less, immediately bringing access to everyone within the transmission radius.
There is some downside to wireless connections. Access typically requires line of sight to get a solid signal and trees and buildings can create obstacles. But other impediments such as rivers, valleys and rugged or unfavorable terrain, become less of a barrier to access.
The desire to acquire reliable Internet access has allowed the development of symbiotic relationships with rural areas. Interlink has often been able to locate access points on water towers and grain elevators in return for internet service for the host or some other mutually beneficial agreement.
But the relative ease of placing antennae has not meant explosive expansion. Interlink uses only company profits to increase service area and has avoided taking outside investment despite what Kline calls a much greater demand for their services than what is currently available.
Brad Kline, Interlink L.C.: "There's a large national company that was significantly larger than us that put all this stuff up, they didn't have people to go out and maintain it, fix it, back it up and they put the equipment in and they just overextended themselves. So, we're just on a progressive growth and I think as we grow we add people to back up the systems and without that it's just not going to be possible to keep any system going."
Rapidly deployed, relatively inexpensive technology is not the only reason for Interlink's success. A local, service-minded mentality has been perhaps their most valuable asset. Interlink installers generally can connect a typical customer in their service area by the next day. And customers who are having computer problems can call a service representative located in the same geographic vicinity.
While Interlink is moving forward at what Kline considers a reasonable pace for his business, the future of the technology could have wider implications.
Keokuk is located in Lee county which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Early in the past century, the economy of Lee county relied on heavy industry. Lowell Junkins, executive director of the county's economic development group, claims a small victory in not losing more businesses. And the promise of wireless to deliver the services necessary for business growth has Junkins encouraged for the future of his area.
Lowell Junkins, Lee County Economic Development Group: "Frankly I would be surprised if we see very many folks like Interlink who will be able to keep up with the kind of pressure that will be on them to deliver the quality of service that's going to be demanded. They're going to be running at mach 2 and slightly behind the demand."
Junkins wants to see the entire county covered with broadband access in one form or another in the next year and a half. Covering the county with broadband would mean a business could find any ideal location in the county and not be concerned about Internet connectivity.
Lowell Junkins, Lee County Economic Development Group: "From our point of view, as we look to grow new industry, grow the industry that's here or invite new industry and businesses to our county, being able to answer the question, can I get high speed Internet access is a pass or fail question."
Wireless is certainly not the only way to bring broadband to rural areas. Nor is it necessarily the best way for every area. But, as part of the delivery arsenal, deployment of new technology and access methods can fill a giant hole in the rural American survival story.
For Market to Market, I'm Tyler Teske.