Rural and wireless. Problem solved?

I walked into my cousin’s farmhouse in southwestern Minnesota the other day, interrupting a Skype conversation with her daughter in Belgium.

She was smiling, obviously enjoying the chat and happy to connect with a family member on the other side of the world. After she hung up, I asked about her Internet connection.

DSL.

How do you like it?

Terrible. Speed problems. Tried a vendor in a nearby town but it couldn’t serve her.

Here she was, doing something that was impossible a few years ago and still, at least mildly, complaining about it.

My cousin’s unhappiness with her wired connection provides some two-sided insight, both into the appeal wireless Internet service has in rural areas and into why lots of people don’t think wireless broadband technology will ever be the best answer to rural access questions.

It keeps getting better and more attractive, but we keep wanting more, perhaps more than wireless can deliver to everybody.

Verizon earlier this month announced its HomeFusion product, offering rural wireless Internet access faster than many urban residents have today and riding on the company’s expanding 4G network. You stick a bucket-sized antenna on the side of your house and pay $60 a month and, presto, you allegedly get downloads speeds of up to 12 megabits per second and upload speeds up to five megabits per second. That’s faster than a lot of people get in the Twin Cities.

Verizon is starting in three markets in other parts of the country and then promising service nationwide. In Minnesota, Verizon predicts that it will offer 4G coverage to all its territory, and by extension, offer HomeFusion to virtually the entire state, by the end of 2013.

That raises the question again whether wireless is ultimately the answer to the rural access problem. Since computing is shifting more and more to mobile applications anyway, can’t we just skip past all these expensive fiber optic cable projects people are proposing and building?

First of all, be clear that the Verizon offering itself does not make the answer to that question yes.

Your $60 gets you enough data to watch maybe a couple movies a month. (You can pay more for more data.) At their best, the speeds promised barely meet Minnesota’s broadband goals for everyone by 2015. (By comparison, typical fiber optics promise speeds of 100 megabits per second, both download and upload, and don’t get mired in data cap issues.)

And indeed, Verizon is careful not to say their wireless offerings will make rural fiber unneeded.

“We offer choices,” company spokeswoman Debra Lewis said. “This is for people who have limited broadband choice or for whom this is the right choice.”

In addition, there are conflicting claims that wireless providers’ promises either exaggerate what is delivered or underplay what people ultimately experience.

But for some, my cousin probably included, it definitely would be an improvement and so it makes you wonder about the long-term potential. What happens after the next improvement to wireless?

(Background: Wireless Internet service relies on hundreds of towers scattered about the landscape. Each of such access points receives service via a cable or microwave signal and then broadcasts wirelessly to homes and businesses within a several-mile radius. Limits in the past have involved speed, how much data can move and obstacles like rocks and trees. Things are improving on each front.)

I put the question to a number of people the past couple weeks and came away with this:

–Wireless broadband offerings from Verizon, AT&T and small regional providers like MVTV Wireless in Granite Falls, it seems likely, will be part of the way Minnesota achieves ubiquitous broadband coverage. As it improves, it will satisfy more residents. And it’s hard to extend fiber everywhere.

–At the same time, wireless seems destined to have difficulty catching up. For a long time, at least, speeds and the amount of data users can get will fall well short of what can be carried to your home on a fiber. To many people, that means to the extent that an area relies on wireless, that area will have “second class” service.

And that is something some people just hate, down to their bones, when they contemplate the ways business, medicine, education, entertainment and other fields increasingly demand robust service. What I can do in the Twin Cities, my cousin wants to do on her farm, and some say, only fiber can deliver that.

“Most tech futurists would say we need them both” said Bill Coleman, who runs the broadband and economic development consulting firm Community Technology Advisors. Simply put, for some people at least, wireless works, he said.

But “the ability to attract and retain young people and creative class workers is a top goal of most communities these days,” Coleman said. “So the fiber is expensive but so would be declining population and school enrollments.”

And that leaves some communities with perplexing problems, it seems to me. If wireless satisfies enough demand to sap support for fixed-wire projects that promised fiber to the farm, what happens in a place like Sibley County, where residents and officials are contemplating ways to extend wired networks for farms?

“Most Americans don’t know what they’re missing” with slower speeds and data caps, said Christopher Mitchell, who follows telecommunications issues for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and who is a big proponent of community-built fiber projects.

You can find a clue, perhaps, in the federal stimulus project awarded to the Woodstock Telephone Co. to lay fiber in southwestern Minnesota. Apparently, little or no progress has been made on the project. At the government’s tracking site, Recovery.com, the company cited as a reason for diminished feasibility that another company was awarded money for wireless service over part of the service area.

(See Ground Level reporter Jennifer Vogel’s exploration of stimulus broadband project delays.)

Woodstock officials didn’t return calls. But Dan Richter, who runs the wireless service in question, MVTV Wireless, did. He allowed as how you could conclude his wireless service is making the economics harder for a wired service like Woodstock.

MVTV is upgrading its service steadily, now covering almost 20,000 square miles. It’s residential service offers speeds of 2.5 megabits but the non-profit company is preparing for 4G and faster service. He says he’s adding about 100 customers a month.

But he’s not really trying to compete with wired services. “We want to go where people aren’t,” he said. Most of his customers are rural and are switching from satellite service or dial-up service or getting Internet access for the first time. “Wireless is just one piece of the whole puzzle,” he said, but he cautioned people not to rule out the long-term potential of wireless speeds.

I asked Richter about competition from Verizon and AT&T, the big national wireless providers.

“I think I’ll be dead and gone by the time Verizon worries about 300 people in the heart of southwest Minnesota,” he said. Referring to big-company coverage claims, he added, “Come out here with your 4G smartphone. I have techs who have smartphones and I still can’t get ‘em on a cell phone outside Hendricks.”

Undoubtedly, both big companies with products like HomeFusion and regional outfits like MVTV are using wireless Internet service to “enfranchise” more people with Internet access.

Still, Mitchell notes how wireless service can make the economics more difficult for those pushing for high-speed fiber networks.

“Wireless won’t meet the needs for most people and won’t lead to economic development, but it can poison the well (to use a totally overblown metaphor) for a robust next-generation network by taking 10-15 percent of the market,” he said in an email.