Rolling wheat fields are also Wi-Fi country
Tuesday, September 7, 2004
By JOHN COOK
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Walla Walla County is better known for wheat fields than Wi-Fi. But a
small community-owned utility in this agriculture-dependent region has
constructed one of the largest wireless Internet networks in rural
America, rolling out high-speed connections across about 1,500 square miles.
Dayton-based Columbia Energy, a subsidiary of the Columbia Rural
Electric Association, built the network for farmers who monitor
irrigation equipment in the field and for residential and business
customers who have limited access to cable or digital subscriber line
"You have some hot spots at Starbucks," Columbia Energy CEO Tom Husted
said. "This is one huge hot spot."
Huge it is. The network is 10 times larger than a proposed citywide
Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) network in Philadelphia -- one that media
reports last week inaccurately said would be the largest in the world.
Covering parts of Walla Walla, Columbia, Franklin, Benton and Umatilla
counties, Columbia Energy's 1,500-square-mile Wi-Fi hot spot is bigger
than the state of Rhode Island.
"Wow," said Dianah Neff, chief information officer at the city of
Philadelphia when told of Columbia Energy's Wi-Fi system. "Certainly,
1,500 square miles is very large."
About 100 people are on the network, including real estate agent Christy
Young, who signed up for the wireless service last month when she moved
her business into the former John Deere farm-implement shop in downtown
"We've got some things to learn," Young admits. "But it has been a big
help to have it in the building and not have all of the cords."
Typically located in hotels, airports and other high-traffic areas,
Wi-Fi hot spots allow laptop users to read e-mail or surf the Internet
without plugging their machines into the wall. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed
radio frequencies to carry Internet traffic -- usually at a range of a
couple of hundred feet.
But a new breed of communications equipment is making it possible to
transmit the radio waves over extremely long distances at relatively low
costs. That combination is making converts of some who believe long-haul
Wi-Fi is the answer for rural communities looking to bridge what is
often described as "the digital divide."
Columbia Energy's Husted is a believer. Although the utility has
operated a wireless network for the past two years, it was only in
recent months that new Wi-Fi equipment was installed that cut the costs
of Internet service to a competitive price.
"Why go wired when you can do it at a fraction of the cost through
wireless?" Husted asks.
The new 1,500-square-mile network is powered by San Francisco-based
Vivato Inc., whose antennas and smaller pico cell transmitters send
Wi-Fi signals up to 30 miles, and Spokane-based OneEighty Networks, a
wireless Internet service provider that manages residential and business
accounts. Vivato and OneEighty have some experience when it comes to
large-scale wireless networks. They recently helped build the
SpokaneHotZone -- a free Wi-Fi network that covers a 100-block area in
Deploying a secure wireless network over hundreds of miles of rolling
hills, arid canyons and small towns was much easier than creating a
citywide system, said Kevin Ryan, vice president of marketing and
business development at Vivato.
"Usually in these open spaces, there is a lot less interference than
there is in the big cities, both in terms of physical impediments like
buildings, but also in terms of radio frequency interference," Ryan
said. "A rural deployment where you have large open areas is ideally
suited for our equipment."
Vivato, with a 60-person research and development center in Spokane, is
looking to join with other regional utilities that might want to bring
wireless broadband to rural America.
"People ask if this is a niche application. The answer is no," Ryan
said. "There are thousands of these rural utilities across the U.S. that
we think are great opportunities." The company also has been flooded
with calls from larger cities looking to roll out Wi-Fi networks as a
way to spur economic development.
Providing Internet service to thinly populated areas has not been an
easy task in the past as cable and phone companies bypass small towns
because of expensive installation and maintenance costs. As a result,
about 75 percent of Americans still do not have access to broadband.
Wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi and a more powerful version known
as WiMax, could change the economics of how people get online.
It is already happening in parts of the state.
Stevenson, a town of 1,300 people on the Columbia River, set up a free
Wi-Fi network in its business district last fall as a way to help drive
tourism. And Maverick Wireless deployed a Wi-Fi network earlier this
year in Benton County that covers 40 square miles, with monthly service
charges ranging from $24.95 to $59.95. The Redmond company, which also
offers Wi-Fi in parts of Poulsbo and Silverdale, plans to have wireless
networks running in 140 markets in the next three years.
"The bottom line is that DSL and cable are not in these communities,"
said Maverick Wireless founder David Schmelke, who was the former
director of wireless data at T-Mobile USA. "They have been secondary
telecom markets. But the PUDs (public utility districts) are getting
more interested in stepping up and making this happen."
With seven transmission towers strategically positioned on high points
in southeast Washington and northeast Oregon, Columbia Energy's wireless
network was built for about $600,000. That's a fraction of what it would
have cost to lay fiber-optic cable, Husted said.
Charter Communications and Qwest do sell high-speed Internet in some
parts of southeast Washington, although Husted said the mobility offered
through Columbia Energy is a big advantage.
"For farmers, their office is in the tractor or the combine," he said.
"They can take the connectivity with them by being able to control or
monitor applications and equipment on the farm." Office workers,
students and other users no longer need multiple e-mail addresses,
relying instead on one account that they can manage from a laptop
anywhere they travel, Husted said.
The cost of the service ranges from $39.95 per month for 256 kilobits
per second to $259.95 per month for 1.5 megabits per second, speeds that
are five times to 30 times faster than dial-up connections. Husted, who
plans to start marketing the service this month, expects 200 more
customers by the end of the year.
Columbia Rural Electric is the largest customer, with utility workers
using Wi-Fi-enabled computers to check meters and remotely monitor
"We have had a utility truck rolling down the highway, 10 miles from the
tower with a laptop and a network card, get 700 kilobits (of
connectivity)," Husted boasts.
Residential and business customers have been pleased.
Nanette Walkley, owner of a 5,000-acre family farm near Burbank in Walla
Walla County, is paying slightly more for the wireless Internet service
than she did for a dial-up connection through America Online. The
Internet connection is fast, allowing Walkley to get e-mail and view
online photographs of farming equipment from nearby auctions.
"With the old Internet, it was almost faster to drive to the auction,"
joked Walkley, whose family grows wheat, sweet corn, alfalfa and other
crops. Wireless Internet has not changed the way Walkley farms, although
she envisions a time in the near future when it will make the operation
Next up will be installation of new wireless equipment, which will allow
her to remotely monitor irrigation systems and change water flow to the
fields. She hopes to have that in place some time next year.
"That would be quite a time saver, saving wear and tear on the
vehicles," she said.
AgriNorthwest -- a large farming operation in southeast Washington --
already has been using the wireless network to send e-mail, financial
reports and other agricultural information to the company's headquarters
"Wind, snow, rain -- and we get a lot of wind out here on Eureka farm --
it goes, it works," said Mark Larsen, technology manager for AgriNorthwest.
Next year, the privately held company will use the Wi-Fi network to
control irrigation pumps on a more than 10,000-acre potato, corn and
wheat farm in Walla Walla County.
"Wireless is here; it is for real," said Larsen. "An agricultural
business can link a site a long ways away. It makes a lot of sense."
Farmers are not the only ones benefiting.
Young, the Dayton real estate agent, said she has been impressed with
the speed of the service as she gets real estate information and checks
The wireless network also has come in handy as the four real estate
agents set up shop in the new office on Main Street.
"By going wireless, we have the ability to put an office wherever we
want, so the mobility is wonderful," she said.
Young has yet to access the Internet while showing homes or agricultural
property, although she plans to do so once she becomes more comfortable
with the service.
"It will be so nice to show a farmhouse and be able to pull up
comparables right there," she said.
As demand for the service grows, the utility plans to double the
coverage area by adding new Wi-Fi base stations.
The market remains small. After all, Columbia and Walla Walla counties
have a combined population of just 59,000 -- a small percentage when
compared with the 1.7 million people living in King County.
Columbia Energy's Husted believes the service will catch on, especially
as farmers and industrial users realize the benefits of wireless
communications in their daily operations.
Husted knew the utility would have to build the high-speed wireless
network on its own, much as local farmers did 65 years ago when they set
up the cooperative to bring electricity to the area.
"A large investor-owned company was not going to put in the needed
infrastructure to allow us to bridge that digital divide here in rural
America," Husted said. "If someone was going to do it, it was going to
have to be us."
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