Americans participating in the discussion about a national broadband plan can look to the North for an example. In Canada, the country’s largest cable and wireless operator, Rogers Communications, partnered with the nation’s largest phone company, Bell Canada, to create a Canada-wide wireless broadband network.

The joint venture entity, Inukshuk Wireless, built a national WiMAX network to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas in both rural and urban locations in Canada. The first markets went live three years ago.

"Two titans, who are also competitors, joined together to create the joint venture," said Don Falle, general manager of Inukshuk Wireless. "We’ve deployed a very large network. We do not provide services to end users. Those are provided by the two separate companies in competition to each other."

The network includes 200 areas, roughly defined as towns or cities, extending from remote regions of the Yukon in the northwest to the densest areas of Toronto.

Falle said a wireless broadband network made sense "because we can leverage existing infrastructures – tall towers and backhaul technology." The existing cell towers are typically 250-300 feet tall. "When dealing with rural areas, taller is better," he said.

The Inukshuk network delivers speeds of about 3 Mbps, competitive with DSL, said Falle, adding that as WiMAX expands, speeds will increase.

Last mile and middle mile

Inukshuk faces the same problems reaching remote areas that providers in the United States face – namely the middle mile and last mile.

IP-based international network operator Global Crossing recently sent a letter to the agencies handling the U.S. broadband stimulus program, informing them of its desire to expand its U.S.-based fiber-optic network and stressing the importance of middle-mile facilities.

"The middle mile can run hundreds of miles in the United States," said Paul Kouroupas, VP and senior counsel, Global Crossing.

While the last mile is generally understood as the first connection between the consumer and the broadband network – whether it’s a cell tower, cable node or phone switching station – the middle mile is the connection from those points to the main Internet backbone.

"There is certainly new focus on the middle mile, triggered by debate on rural broadband," said Kouroupas. While operators may have reached the last mile, they are restrained from upgrading speeds if the middle mile is not upgraded as well.

"That’s the point of our letter," said Kouroupas. "Solving the last mile isn’t going to solve your problem. You have to do it in tandem with the middle mile as well. Our network runs throughout the United States, cutting through many rural areas. We want to look at the possibility of extending our network to middle mile carriers."

Microwave

The Inukshuk joint venture took advantage of existing infrastructures as much as possible. "There’s no magic bullet here," said Falle. "Depending on population densities, there is no perfect technology. Each has its own place."

Inukshuk used WiMAX in conjunction with fiber and microwave point-to-point.

"A large percentage of towns have fiber to the tower; the rest have microwave," Falle said.

He explained that microwave is used to provide capacity on a point-to-point basis from a cell tower to another cell tower or other hubbing point.

Japan-based NEC Corp. provides point-to-point microwave radio systems, among other services and products, to countries around the world. NEC’s American subsidiary is hoping to reap some of the benefits of the U.S. broadband stimulus.

"Our equipment plays in this scenario delivering broadband to backhaul," said Wally Strader, associate general manager, Radio Communications Systems Division of NEC.

"We use our point-to-point systems to carry traffic to and from switching stations," said Strader. "That’s our piece of the puzzle. There might be several hops or links of radio, or we can bring (traffic) to a fiber aggregation network and hand off. Several network topologies can be employed depending on terrain or other variables on a case-by-case basis."

Falle said Inukshuk technologists generally prefer fiber because it has more capacity. However, it costs more and is more expensive to repair. "Microwave is a rapid deployment technology," he said.

Either way brings benefits. "Once people have (broadband), they never go away," Falle said. "There’s no churn. It also makes a big difference from a community perspective."

He said schools in remote regions have been using their new broadband connections to bring tele-education to children. "It’s made a huge difference to the quality of life in those areas."

– Linda Hardesty

Read more news and analysis on Communications Technology‘s Web site at www.cable360.net/ct/news/.

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