Wi-Max Promises High-Speed Internet to Unwired Areas

Commentary, Information Technology, Robert Sopuck, Rural

A pundit once wrote that capitalism is a self-correcting process of economic improvement. (Or was that pundit me?) “Self-correcting” means that “losers” are quickly discarded (remember “Beta” video technology) and “winners” may take just a little longer to be supplanted by something even better.

In this technology-driven age the process goes even faster, given the millions of “geeks” out there who are always testing the limits and trying to get rich by coming up with the next “great thing.” I heartily approve of this process and use the term “geeks” with the deepest of respect; their efforts make my lifestyle possible.

What is the “next great thing” in communications technology and what might it mean for rural development? It is a wireless alternative to slow-speed rural telephone lines.

Some background. I am absolutely convinced that rural Manitoba needs to build on the natural advantages it already possesses. I’m talking about using our environmental, infrastructure, and service assets to provide ideal places for the development of “information industries.” Many highly skilled people who are unhappy with an urban existence just need to be shown that they have alternatives in the countryside. An extensive report on this phenomenon can be found in my report on “Lone Eagles” located on the Frontier Centre’s website (www.fcpp.org ).

One of the weaknesses of the current rural infrastructure is the lack of high-speed or broadband Internet service in areas outside our small towns. I’m old enough to remember when single lines, fax machines, and Apple IIC computers were all big deals, so I have never been too fussed about being tied to “dial-up” service. But enough information professionals have convinced me that high speed is crucial to the development of significant information industries in the countryside. These people work in fields that require the transmission of massive files, especially the engineering and graphic design professions.

Enter Wi-Max, a brand new “last mile” Internet technology that promises to sweep away the last vestiges of mediocre communications services and replace them with wireless high-speed or broadband technology. It is a supercharged form of Wi-fi, which provides high-speed coverage within a small hotspot of a hundred yards or so. Wi-Max, with a maximum range of 30 miles, would provide access to farmhouses, cottages and log cabins like my own, within range of Wi-Max towers in smaller population centres.

As someone who literally lives at that proverbial “last mile,” I can hardly wait. British Telecom is already testing Wi-Max in four rural areas in the United Kingdom. Intel, the world's leading chip-maker, plans to make Wi-Max support a standard feature of most laptop computers starting in 2006 or 2007. Look to see it explode onto our scene within the next two years.

In a recent article in Wireless Week magazine, Carlton O’Neal of Alvarion, one of the companies involved, described the process for customers who could not access conventional broadband. A phone company installer arrives at a new broadband customer’s house with a digital subscriber line modem and a Wi-Max modem. O’Neal noted that, “If he can get out there and hook up the DSL modem, then fine. But if he can’t, then he can just mount this small antenna on the side of your house and then he could hook you up that way.”

I was always confident that the free market system could make this happen, and it looks like it has. Stay tuned, rural Manitoba. Wireless broadband Internet is right around the corner.