Wireless Internet alternative for rural broadband

Brown County has a fiber optic heart, with light-speed communication running east and west along State Road 46 and north and south from Nashville to the county’s schools.

But for most of the county, that fiber optic thoroughfare is completely out of reach.

Telecommuters such as John and Kristie Tiernan — who work for companies based in Montreal and Chicago — depend on a “grandfathered” cellular plan to be able to live in Brown County and get their work done.

David Bright, who telecommutes for an Indianapolis company, paid an extra $400 for equipment to boost his cellular signal at home. His monthly data bill can exceed $200 during his busiest times.

Some choose satellite Internet. But weather can interfere with the connection, and the distance from the ground to a satellite creates lag. The time delay can make some activities, such as videoconferencing, difficult or impossible.

Hills O’Brown Managing Broker Tom Vornholt said he frequently encounters potential homebuyers who want to live in Brown County and telecommute.

As someone who is happy with his satellite Internet at home, Vornholt tells potential buyers that broadband speed is available anywhere. However, the cost is still often a hangup for customers.

Introductory prices for satellite Internet in Brown County run between $50 and $130 a month. Installation and equipment may cost another $100 to $400.

Both cellular and satellite internet have upper data limits. Users who take up a lot of data, like telecommuters who are sending and receiving large files and teleconferencing, run into extra fees after they pass that monthly limit.

DSL, which works over normal phone lines, is an option for some residents. But it does not offer broadband speeds outside of population centers like Nashville.

For telecommuters, broadband speeds are a must. And for many of them, the only feasible option is to connect through their cellphones.

The lay of the LAN

While living in a place with few neighbors holds appeal, it also leaves fewer people to share the cost of infrastructure improvements.Like other companies that deliver wired internet in Brown County, NewWave doesn’t have any areas left in Brown County where it is economically feasible to expand its service area, its representatives say.

Outside existing service areas, the population is too sparse to be worth the investment, said NewWave regional general manager Belinda Graham.

It is possible for people to pay to extend the network themselves, Graham said. A group of neighbors could split the cost of the extension. But depending on many variables, that cost could be as little as $1,200 or as much as $12,000.

The future

AT&T expects to spend about $17 million increasing rural broadband in Indiana over the next six years, in conjunction with federal telecommunications initiatives, said Tammy Rader, a senior public relations manager for AT&T of Indiana.However, the company does not know if Brown County will be a part of that, or whether the money will be spent on wired, wireless or a combination of both.

AT&T is currently testing a point-to-point internet service called fixed wireless in an area of Alabama chosen for its hilly terrain.

With fixed wireless, an outside antenna makes a direct connection with a broadcast antenna on a cellular tower, Rader said.

There are no details yet on pricing structures or data limits, but the concept offers a more reliable connection than other non-wired options. It also provides speeds comparable to normal cable-based Internet, with 10 mbps download and 1 mbps upload.

“The trial is still taking place,” Rader said. “Results will help us determine any future offerings.”

Particularly for those who have older data plans, Verizon is already a common option for telecommuters in Brown County.

Verizon spokesperson Carolyn Schamberger said the company markets devices and plans with the expectation that people will use their cellular data for movie and TV streaming and video calls.

While regular cellular connections on modern 3G networks available around the county provide plentiful speed, the highest data allotment through Verizon is 18GB a month and costs $100.

That’s just about enough data to watch six hours of high-definition video per month on a streaming service.

Even though “unlimited” data plans also are available through other cellular providers, they still have caps.

All cellular providers that offer unlimited data in Brown County also have a data cap. However, instead of charging additional fees for those who exceed the cap, the industry standard is to slow the connection to speeds slower than broadband, known as “throttling.”

Working on it

A new, town-county task force is gathering to find out what can be done in the short and long term to accelerate broadband access throughout the county.It’s being organized by Town Manager/Economic Development Director Scott Rudd.

In addition to reviewing past work done on the subject, the task force is looking at funding options and trying to bring additional providers to the table.

Rudd said he would like Brown County and Nashville serve as a model for increasing connectivity in rural communities.

Broadband taskforce

A new taskforce is gathering to look at broadband in Brown County.

Organized by Town Manager/Economic Development Director Scott Rudd, the group includes individuals from both the county and town.

Rudd said the intent of the group is to find what can be done in the short and long term to accelerate broadband access in throughout the county.

In addition to reviewing past work done on the subject, the taskforce is looking at funding and trying to bring additional providers to the table.

Rudd said he would like Brown County and Nashville to ultimately serve as a model for increasing connectivity in rural communities.

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.