The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

August 23, 2011

Help for rural broadband Internet, but not here yet

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — Central and northwest Oklahoma will not benefit directly from more than $103 million worth of grant and loan funds being awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve broadband Internet service in rural areas.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday 18 recipients will receive more than $103 million in funding for 23 projects to provide broadband services to “unserved and underserved rural communities.”

The money is broken into about $13 million worth of direct grants to rural communities and $90 million worth of infrastructure loans for larger projects.

The $90 million in loan money is slated to fund five broadband infrastructure projects in Illinois, Nebraska, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Of the communities receiving direct grant money, three are in Oklahoma: Cornish, in Jefferson County, with a population of less than 200; Tushka, in Atoka County, with a population of about 350; and Leon, in Love County, with a population of less than 100.

The grant money being awarded for Tushka is intended, in part, to help the town recover from an April 14 tornado that damaged numerous buildings in the community, killed two people and injured 25.

Wichita Online Inc., an Internet service provider based out of Medicine Park, is to be awarded more than $1.45 million in grant money to extend broadband Internet service into all three of the southern Oklahoma towns.

“Without broadband, rural communities, agricultural producers and business owners face a substantial challenge,” Vilsack said.

Northern Oklahoma Development Authority Executive Director Larry Tipps said Tuesday residents of rural areas in northwest Oklahoma are familiar with that challenge.

“It has proven a challenge for rural people to be able to connect up with the rest of the world by Internet,” Tipps said.

He said it still is hard for residents and businesses in unincorporated areas to gain Internet access because DSL, or digital subscriber line, providers do not offer services outside of most town or city limits.

Over the past nine years NODA has worked to extend wireless Internet service to rural communities surrounding Enid. NODA initially got into the Internet business to improve Internet access for its own office, Tipps said.

“We had very little access to the Internet out here at that time,” he said.

Spotty Internet service led the NODA staff to change providers several times in less than two years, and then finally to purchase its own wireless network in April 2002.

At the time, the network encompassed 32 towns and almost 400 customers, but it soon was pared down considerably.

“It collapsed pretty quick,” Tipps said. “It was just too many towns for us to maintain it.”

Since then, the network has been reduced to a manageable area in a 35 mile radius around Enid.

From NODA, the wireless Internet signal is transmitted to a tower at Cummins Construction and from there to towers located primarily atop grain elevators in the outlying communities. Each of those receiving towers then transmits the Internet signal to customers within “line-of-sight” from the tower, or about eight to 10 miles.

NODA currently uses that system to offer wireless Internet service to both commercial and residential customers in and around Kremlin, Billings, Hillsdale, Carrier, Lahoma, Drummond, Ames, Waukomis, Bison and Garber.

Tipps said NODA had to stop accepting new memberships in March because the system, at 200 customers, had reached its 10-megabyte-per-second capacity. That led NODA into an agreement to purchase bandwidth from Suddenlink Communications and expand its operating capacity to 45 megabytes per second. That upgrade, which is expected to be complete within the next three to four weeks, will allow NODA to double its subscriber base.

Tipps said the initial 2002 purchase and upgrade of the NODA Internet service was funded by grant money. Since then, the service has operated on a “break-even” basis off its subscriber fees. Often, Tipps said, the service operates at a loss, with the balance coming out of NODA’s general operating budget.

“We just feel its worth it from an economic development perspective, to give small businesses in rural areas access to markets they wouldn’t normally have,” he said.