By Roger O. Crockett Speedy wireless Net connections aren't just for urban cafés anymore. Long-nelected rural towns and even recreational-vehicle parks are now surfing the Web on the Wi-Fi wave, thanks to new enhancements in the technology. Take the nearly 60,000 citizens of Rio Rancho, N.M., who on June 26 gained access to the Net from their homes, their cars, nearby parks -- virtually anywhere around town. No need for DSL or cable-modem service in Rio Rancho, a hamlet that was the 81st of 83 nationwide markets to get broadband from its local cable operator.
Rio Rancho didn't get just any Wi-Fi connection, mind you, which traditionally can reach out about 300 feet reliably. New "mesh" technology expands the reach of wireless networks, allowing Net signals to be beamed across miles. How? By using wireless routers installed every few hundred feet that communicate from point to point, passing along the broadband signal. Suddenly a Wi-Fi hot spot becomes a hot town like Rio Rancho.
AFFORDABLE ACCESS. "If an access point goes out, the system finds the nearest one to connect you to," says Ken Upcraft, executive vice-president of Usurf America, which built the Rio Rancho network. "That allows us to offer full coverage."
Usurf now bills Rio Rancho as the largest Wi-Fi hot spot in the world. It has installed about 500 routers on light poles throughout the city's 103 square miles. In addition, some are mounted on the roofs of tall buildings. "You can cover a large geography very quickly," says Craig Mathias, principal of researcher Farpoint Group. "You can literally be up and running in a few days."
What makes the technology most attractive to small locales is its affordability. Usurf spent about $2 million to construct the Rio Rancho network. It laid out $1.2 million deploying the access points and $830,000 for gear such as antennas and towers connecting to the Net backbone. The cost to residential customers is about $40 a month, and even less in other rural locales where it has already been rolled out. In Chaska, Minn., subscribers pay only $16 a month.
"THE MAGIC OF IT." Indeed, major telcos and cable operators better watch out. The economics are letting little providers like Usurf nab customers on the big boys' turf, especially considering that the costs are a fraction of the estimated $10 million that would have been required for a traditional broadband deployment, according to Robert Wiggins, a wireless research fellow at Yankee Group.
Plenty of cash-strapped municipalities are taking notice. Cerritos, Calif., a small town in the Los Angeles area, put up a mesh network because it was outside the phone company's limits for DSL deployment. Culver City in Southern California is ordering service this month. And heartland communities such as Iowa's tiny Glidden (population 500) Carroll (population 10,000) already have mesh networks at reasonable prices for townsfolk.
Some burgs even plan to make money by allowing buildouts. In exchange for letting wireless companies attach gear to light poles, Rio Rancho expects to get a cut -- 3% -- once Usurf reaches $100,000 in revenues. "That's the magic of it," says one city official.
D.C. HOT SPOT. No wonder Wi-Fi is sprouting up so widely off the beaten path. Firetide, another Wi-Fi equipment company, says it's building a mesh network in upscale RV parks in resort towns such as Palm Springs, Calif. Marinas are another popular place, where boaters can lay anchor and log onto the Net. Campgrounds and parklands are also becoming hot spots. A mesh network is even planned for the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.
"This is big trend," Mathias says. Clearly, Anytown, USA, finally has an on-ramp to the Internet superhighway. Crockett is the deputy chief in BusinessWeek's Chicago bureau