Sacred Wind: Bringing WiMAX to the Navajo reservation – page 2

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The company began building a fiber backbone last year that connects its two central offices on the reservation. Using Harris Stratex point-to-point radios on the 6.1 GHz licensed band, the company is connecting WiMAX towers, creatively placed on mountain tops and cliffs, to beam signals to subscriber units that then provide coverage in homes. In short, WiMAX is being used as the backhaul and regular telephone switches deliver the voice service that is built on top of an IP platform, Badal said.

"One of the end users is a full 5 miles from base stations. We've had to bounce RF (radio frequency) off granite cliff faces to extend the coverage," said Jim Orr, Fujitsu's chief network architect. "The 3.65 GHz band is more flexible than some people think."

Sacred Wind's goal is to cover 70 percent of its 3,200-square-mile service territory by the end of 2011 and 90 percent by the end of 2012, Badal said. It's a daunting task.

"Our service territory has less than one house per square mile," Badal said. "When we complete our network, we'll average about 2.5 to 3 houses per square mile."

A third of Sacred Wind's customers live in HUD or Navajo housing authority communities, which comprise around 30-90 homes. Another third live in clusters of five to six homes, seven to eight miles apart. Still another third of its customers lives alone, about half a mile from the nearest neighbor.

To connect the most remote homes, Sacred Wind isn't ruling out other options, such as satellite services. The company also has to figure out ways to power the network for homes that don't have electricity, with solar power as one possible solution.

"We're willing to talk to anyone and everyone about what is the next new thing that could make our job easier and get signals faster and easier to remote areas," Badal said. "So far, it's fixed wireless."

How does Sacred Wind make money when the area is probably the most expensive to cover in the lower 48 states and one of the poorest?

"This is where the FCC's universal service funds come in," Badal said. "If it were not for the funds, we could not offer service at all."

Many people in the Navajo Reservation qualify for the Federal Tribal Lifeline program, which makes them eligible to pay $1 per month for basic telephone service. However, that makes selling broadband a bit trickier, Badal said.

"We've had to come up with, in delivering broadband, a range of rates that would allow people to access affordable high-speed Internet service," he said. "We offer our lowest broadband cost at $14.95 per month." The company also offers prepaid packages.

Sacred Winds also has received a RUS grant to set up an Internet training center to educate people on how to use the Internet and to help them understand the benefits of being online.

Naturally, Badal sees clear successes through his work: Users can now do things that most people in America take for granted, such as make doctor's appointments without having to drive 30 miles into town to use the telephone. They can call 911. Children can now access the Internet for school work. Entrepreneurs such as craft makers and musicians are expanding their businesses.

As stimulus money rolls out to providers that have the goal of covering the have-nots, Badal has some advice: "Localize the business. Have a business focused on the community and dedicated to the community it serves. Having an out-of-state company in a really small remote rural area is a challenge for out-of-state companies. They are looking to pursue greater returns on investment than they can find in remote areas."

And Badal should know.

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