Cursor Cowboy

Taking Wireless Internet Access to the Country

David Hughes is a hero to the rural towns he has helped link to the Internet with low-cost wireless radio. He is the bane of telephone companies who charge high prices for high-speed lines to remote regions -- when they will provide them at all.

Hughes, dubbed "The Cursor Cowboy," is a blunt-talking retired U.S. Army colonel who takes federal officials at their word when they say they want universal service for rural areas -- even when their deeds seem to contradict those noble sentiments.

Using "spread spectrum" radio, he set up Big Sky Telegraph in Montana in 1989 to connect more than 100 remote schoolhouses in rural Montana to a computer network. Working with the National Science Foundation, he has set up high-speed wireless connections in several rural and urban communities from Belen, N.M, to Colorado Springs, Colo.

He even set up a wireless Internet connection in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Last fall he not only brought high-speed Internet service to the schools of Lewiston, Montana, but he set up a remote unit powered by a solar panel to help the junior high school students monitor the ecology of local Big Spring Creek. This past May the Lewiston students broadcast their report to a wireless radio conference in Washington, D.C., via wireless radio and the Internet and without the use of telephones.

Hughes brought his laptop computer to the University of Texas in Austin June 5 for a conference on creating online community networks. In a few minutes he set up his spread-spectrum radios to tap into the high-speed T-1 Internet access line at the university's conference center. Through the miracle of wireless technology he was accessing the Lewiston website at a transmission rate of approximately 1 million bits per second -- compared with the 56,000 bits per second maximum on standard phone lines. (And most rural lines can't support that speed.) He projected the data from Big Spring Creek to a conference-hall screen in a demonstration of the versatility of wireless Internet radio.

"I'm committed to the highest level of connectivity at the lowest cost," Hughes later explained. "I'm an old infantry officer. I know enough about this stuff and I learned enough about the engineering stuff so that they can't bull---- me -- and I can feed back to the engineers what they ought to be doing."

Spread-spectrum radio uses a processor to fragmentize the digital signal from the computer and broadcast it -- at the same wave frequency as cordless phones and garage door openers -- to a receiver, which reassembles the signal and transmits it to the nearest high-speed Internet line.

Spread-spectrum technology was used primarily by the military to communicate from remote places until 1981, when it was authorized for civilian use. The Federal Communication Commission in 1985 adopted rules that limit spread-spectrum radios to 1 watt, which allows the radios to transmit approximately 10 miles at speeds of up to 3 megabits per second, or up to 30 miles at lower speeds. The use of relays can extend the range.

Hughes is lobbying for the FCC to increase the power to at least 5 watts, which would expand the service area to 50 to 70 miles. That would make a big difference in rural areas, he noted. The FCC staff originally recommended that the transmissions be allowed at up to 100 watts at any frequency above 75 mhz. The spread-spectrum technology allows practically unlimited transmissions without interference, Hughes said, but the objections of companies such as Motorola and Bell South helped to stunt those potentially visionary rules.

Still, the main barrier to high-speed Internet access at practically no service charge in many communities is the cost of a pair of radios, at more than $1,000 each for a transmitter and receiver. Hughes attributes the high cost to the lack of a mass market, as manufacturers appear to be satisfied so far with serving a lucrative corporate and government market. When the consumer market for the radios develops, he foresees the price coming down to less than a couple hundred dollars per unit, which would bring it within the range of homebodies who, with the right connections, could get high-speed Internet access for the cost of a radio. The best part, Hughes adds, is they would bypass the phone company.

The phone companies richly deserve to lose that business. For years they have neglected rural communities, preferring instead to invest in more lucrative urban business systems. Even there, Hughes noted that Pacific Bell, in an internal memo that surfaced in April 1996, had instructed its sales staff that no commission would be paid for residential ISDN lines. And US West, rather than lower prices for ISDN in the face of increasing residential demand in Colorado and Washington state, sought to triple their rates for the service. Even in Colorado Springs, where MCI has a software plant, the company was unable to get US West to supply ISDN service to several hundred engineers so they could work from home.

US West in 1996 offered to wire the Colorado Springs Air Academy School District's 28 buildings with high-speed T-1 lines at a cost of $1.5 million, plus $12,000 each month for the phone lines and Internet service, for a total cost of $2.25 million over 10 years. A wireless company, run by a parent in the school district, won the contract with its bid of $601,000 to install spread-spectrum and microwave radios that transmit from two to 10 megabits per second, with no monthly service charges, so the 10-year cost would be $601,000.

Hughes added that the wireless radio connections are very reliable. In one case where he had set up radio links in Colorado Springs between two schools nine miles apart, after a year and a half the only problem was when a heavy snowfall bent an antenna, but the network engineer reported that the service was still more reliable than the phone company's T-1 lines.

Hughes advised former Alaska Lt. Gov. "Red" Boucher in the founding of Alaska Wireless, a company to solve the very difficult problems of linking remote Alaskan towns to the Internet. In December the company connected the schools at Toksook Bay, a village on the Bering Sea with a population of 550 which had only gotten phone service 17 years ago. Previously, the best Internet connection they could get over the phone lines was 9600 bits per second.

Within nine days of the arrival of the company's service technician, the schools and the village health clinic were connected with the Internet and each other at speeds up to 3.5 million bits per second. For the first time teacher Jim Mitchell can receive radio broadcasts in his district-supplied house through the Internet. The local health clinic is experimenting with two-way audio/video telemedicine so that patients will be able to be "seen" by doctors in nearby Bethel, Anchorage or hospitals in the "Lower 48" on a video link.

The system performed flawlessly through the winter, despite Bering Sea blizzards and wind chills down to 75 degrees below zero. Still, Hughes noted that the area telephone company is opposing the use of a $700,000 federal grant to extend wireless data services to the schools of the 40 villages in one region of Alaska, on the grounds that federal laws and FCC rules make it illegal to offer competing services with federal funds at lower costs where there is already service.

Coincidentally, the Universal Service Fund, which Congress authorized in the Telecom Deregulation Act of 1996, allocates $2.25 billion annually to subsidize high-speech Internet connections to schools, libraries and hospitals, but the FCC has ruled that the fund excludes subsidies for wireless technology. Hughes had praise for the Texas Infrastructure Fund, which was created in 1995 to disburse $1.5 billion in grants and loans over a 10-year period to assist public schools, hospitals, universities and libraries with no such restrictions on technology. Somehow Southwestern Bell and GTE, which own most of the Texas phone market, let that pass.

Hughes also has reported on Wireless Lariat, a non-profit Internet service provider in Laramie, Wyoming, population 26,000 and home of the University of Wyoming. Since the cost of a T-1 line from the nearest commercial provider in Cheyenne, 35 miles away, would run more than $3,000 a month, no local Internet service provider had surfaced through 1995. So Brett Glass, an electrical engineer, formed Lariat, connecting it with the university's Internet node in exchange for giving the university two radio "bridges." Lariat offers dial-up Internet service to the public for $4.95 a month. Three local businesses also have signed up with Lariat for high-speed access with their own "bridge" radios, paying Lariat $450 a month.

This arrangement is likely to be challenged eventually by a commercial T-1 supplier, Hughes acknowledged, but in the meantime it has allowed a non-profit, high-bandwidth, local Internet provider to grow to the point where it may be in a position to buy conventional T-1 service and use radio bridges to deliver T-1 access to businesses and institutions at reasonable prices.

Hughes' bolo ties and cowboy boots belie the computer "geek" stereotype, but the 70-year-old retiree said he got into wireless Internet evangelism simply because it's in the public interest. He is a partner in Old Colorado City Communications, a wireless and custom communications development company located in Colorado Springs, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation awarded him the Telecommunications Pioneer Award in 1993 for his work in grassroots electronic democracy.

When the National Science Foundation became aware of his activities, they signed him up as a field investigator and he has set out to spread the word, in accord with the expressed will of Congress.

"Congress said we want competition; this is competition with the phone companies, not between them, so I'm making Republicans put their money where their mouth is," Hughes said, warming to his subject. "Then secondly they want universality and I'll flat tell you there are places off Puget Sound where there are communities with schools where a phone company won't lay [fiber optic cables], no matter who pays for it. And thirdly, 'technology neutral' is another thing Congress said they wanted in the telecom act. Well, wireless is not only different from wire, but it is a fundamentally different model and it is so revolutionary that it threatens phone companies fundamentally because we already know by the latest doctorates that we could have free phone service throughout the United States for the cost of the devices. ..."

"US West hates my guts," Hughes says, but he doesn't mind as long as it brings the Internet to people who could not otherwise afford a hookup.

For more information, contact Dave Hughes, 2502 West Colorado Ave., Suite 203, Colorado Springs, CO 80904; phone 719-636-2040; email; Web

Jim Mitchell, teacher/technician, Toksook Bay, AK 99637; email;

Lewiston (Montana) On Line,;

Brett Glass, Wireless Lariat of Laramie, email

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