RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Bringing rural America onto the information highway at high speed and at reasonable cost has proved to be one of the unsolvable puzzles of the Internet boom.

America Connect, a startup wireless Internet provider based in Raleigh but which operates in Person and Granville counties, may have an answer.

The company, launched in 1999, is working with BellSouth on a new high-speed wireless trial involving licensed spectrum to see if rural residents and businesses outside major markets will seize upon Internet-without-wires.

America Connect, which received a $500,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Internet Access Authority, is offering trial participants bandwidth from as low as 128kb to DS-3. DS-3 is equivalent to 45 megabits per second, while the most common business high-speed connection is a T-1 (1.54 megabits).

When the RIAA announced the grant last year it described the America Connect concept as a possible “nationwide model.”
We’ll soon find out.

“The go commercial is expected by the end of the first quarter next year,” says Peter Roach, a spokesman for America Connect. “Yes, we are just starting to sign up customers.”

America Connect is using wireless 2.3 GHz spectrum licensed by BellSouth for potential 3G high-speed services. It also is using equipment from multiple vendors, according to Roach.

BellSouth, by the way, holds licenses on the 2.3 GHz spectrum across the Southeast. So this trial could lead to a big rollout should it prove successful.

“Wireless will allow us to economically provide broadband services into rural areas where there is little or no broadband competition today,” said Joseph Forbes, chief executive officer of America Connect, in announcing the trial. “We have studied applications of fixed wireless in rural communities for over three years and our research has shown there is a viable market and pent up demand in the rural areas.”

Phone companies such as BellSouth and Sprint are expanding the reach of their high-speed DSL services over traditional phone lines. Cable TV providers such as Time Warner and Cox also are broadening their footprints. Satellite, too, is an option. But the cable and phone companies only are going to add services where there are enough people and/or businesses to provide a good return on investment. As for satellite, it has something like 1 percent of the broadband business.

Forbes made an interesting point in talking about competition. Even if broadband is available, rural users may have only one choice. Those of us living in metro areas have the advantage of picking cable or DSL. If the wireless trial works, consumers get more choice, and that means better prices and service.

“We are excited about this wireless broadband trial because it may break the mold of how broadband typically has been deployed in these rural areas,” said Jane Patterson, executive director of the RIAA, in announcing the America Connect and BellSouth collaboration. “We may be looking at an entirely new paradigm for providing high-speed Internet service to rural America.”

For information about America Connect and to trial, visit: www.aconnect.net

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.