Georgia citizens take broadband into their own hands

Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series of stories that will appear periodically in FierceBroadbandWireless highlighting the deployment of wireless broadband in rural communities.

A little more than three years ago, a group of citizens in the rural town of Arlington, Ga.--population 1,800--were fed up with the lack of broadband connectivity in their community. So they decided to do something about it.

Lee Conner and the other three people who were part of the Downtown Business Authority in Arlington began polling local area businesses in nearby counties about their lack of broadband access. The consensus: Businesses, most of which rely heavily on agriculture, were dying on the vine because they couldn't expand online.

"It was a microcosm of an overall voice being yelled out, but no one could hear it because no one was connected," Conner said.

Conner, owner of an insurance company, also had a vested interest in bringing broadband to the area. His daughter was a high school student at the time and needed to complete state-mandated online courses. All of the schools in the area were served by a single 1.5 Mbps T-1 line, and the Internet would continually crash. And while Conner's office in downtown Arlington had DSL-priced at $130 per month for a 768 Kbps connection, those just outside of town had no connectivity.

"To succeed in school, kids have to connect. Companies were losing business because business moved online. We couldn't have that. So we were dumb enough to ask if we could fix this," he quipped.

Luckily, the state of Georgia had recently developed the OneGeorgia BRIDGE Broadband Rural Initiative to foster broadband services in rural areas. The group--which had grown to include a host of people representing interests ranging from local government to schools and businesses--applied for a grant that would see broadband come to at least two counties. It received $2.7 million, and the number of counties quickly increased to five--Baker, Calhoun, Early, Miller and Mitchell Counties, with a sixth county coming online in July. The group of citizens became the Southern Georgia Regional Information Technology Authority, otherwise known as SGRITA.

Now Conner, who is director of SGRITA, and a host of SGRITA volunteers recently finished building SGRITA's 25 towers across a 180-mile circle. Phase I of SGRITA's network plans involve the deployment of a wireless Ethernet backhaul point-to-point solution from DragonWave, which deployed its radios on the 25 towers to stretch connectivity across these five counties, covering 2,000 square miles and providing 190 Mbps of capacity to the region. This has given broadband access to area schools, industry and government offices. Most importantly, SGRITA has moved the area's schools from the bottom 8 percent in connectivity speed to the top 1 percent in the world.

"We'd love to have fiber, but we couldn't afford it," Conner said. "We will have fiber run in our long-range plans, but this is a vast area. This is four times the land mass of the Atlanta metro area ... We had to build a core wireless ring at a fraction of the cost of other technologies."

SGRITA has now embarked on Phase II of the project: bringing commercial wireless broadband to residents and more businesses as well as expanding the service's footprint. ...Continued

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