Rural America, your WiMAX is waiting

Soon, funds from the 7.2 billion dollar American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be available, with $2.5 billion going to fund rural broadband projects through the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS). This funding is intended to be used in the construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities to provide broadband to unserved and underserved locations in the US.

The 2008 Farm Bill (1.5 MB PDF available here) defines eligible rural communities as any area other than a city, town, or unincorporated area with a population greater than 20,000 inhabitants, or a city, town or unincorporated area with fewer than 50,000.

For those of us living in areas served by fiber-to-the-home and 3G wireless, any venture outside of our coverage blanket feels like a journey into the past. But in truth, if you cover your eyes and point to a United States map, the odds are in favor of your finger hitting an underserved rural area where the adoption of new technology is hampered by its lagging infrastructure.

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The FCC categorizes the possible rural broadband options -- and certainly those in the whole of the US -- as: DSL, cable, satellite, fiberoptic, BPL (Broadband over Power Line) and wireless. A crucial debate thus far has been over which method of connection is the most advantageous, but wireless has been getting strong support in recent months.

Thanks to test deployments of WiMAX in extreme locations like the remote Ta Van village in northern Vietnam, and in under-connected African countries like Benin and Cameroon, deployments can begin quickly, cheaply, and in spite of harsh conditions. Unlike fiber and copper, no digging is required in a WiMAX network. Base stations can be set up, moved, or upgraded with relative ease.

Because the guidelines for receiving stimulus grants are still very unclear, and Congress has stressed that it wants practical solutions as quickly as possible, WiMAX is in a unique position. American WiMAX supporters like Airspan Networks are eager to show that it is "ready to roll" with both back-end and CPE hardware available, economically viable, flexible, and able to support the capacity and speed minimums that will be laid down by the government in the upcoming grant programs.

Even though early supporters of the wireless standard such as Nokia have grown skeptical of its potential as LTE has gained major support in the mobile sector, WiMAX still has much to offer and could experience a big boom as early as next month.

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