FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
In a day when improved speed and convenience are ongoing expectations among consumers of almost all services, the arrival of high-speed Internet to Hillsboro and Marion County two years ago has been a boon-at least for those who feel they can afford it.

Prairie iNet brought wireless Internet to the county in summer 2001, providing a considerably faster and more reliable service to customers than had been available through traditional dial-up providers such as Southwind out of Wichita-a company which has since been absorbed by Earthlink, the national giant.

With the arrival of Prairie iNet, an Iowa-based company that used a system of microwave radio signals to move Internet information back and forth, customers could suddenly send and receive information on the Internet up to 10 times faster-but for about twice the monthly fee of dial-up.

In the ensuing months, DTN Speednet, based in Omaha, Neb., acquired Prairie iNet, and remains the only wireless provider in Hillsboro actively seeking customers-at least for now.

Tri-County Telephone Co., based in Council Grove, has moved into Marion already and plans to enter the Hillsboro market within “60 to 90 days,” according to company officials.

Tabor College also offers wireless Internet service, but has restricted its availability to faculty and students, including those living off campus.

At least two other wireless providers have made inquiries about the Hillsboro market, city officials have said, but it is not clear how serious their intentions are.

Then last month, Galaxy Cablevision announced it would be bringing broadband high-speed Internet via fiber-optics at speeds up to 768 kilobits per second to Hillsboro and Marion.

Galaxy spokesman Paul Joiner said the system should be available in the market currently served by Galaxy by late September.

Limited market?

What has been the upshot of these developments for consumers?

Scott Braden of Braden Computers in Hillsboro-one of two outlets for DTN Speednet in the city-said faster service was welcomed by an enthusiastic but limited segment of local Internet users.

“Actually, I think (by now) almost everyone who feels they can afford it is on it,” Braden said.

He said the monthly fee for DTN Speednet-$49.95 per month for the individual user-is about twice the cost of the most popular dial-up options. An additional $200 is required for equipment and installation, although Braden said he is currently offering those things at half price.

But the higher monthly fee doesn’t mean wireless service is not competitive with dial-up services in some circumstances.

“If you’re paying for a second phone line because you have dial-up, you’re crazy not to get (wireless),” Braden said. “You’re already paying what it costs (for the extra phone line and the dial-up service) that you’d be paying for the flat rate from DTN.”

At what price speed?

If dial-up users have only one phone line coming into their home or business, then the key question becomes: How much is the extra speed and convenience worth?

For basic e-mail and casual Internet surfing, dial-up speed (86 kilobits per second or less) might be adequate, Braden said.

But for downloading (receiving) or uploading (sending) substantial files via the Internet, the slow speed of dial-up can be an aggravation, Braden said.

For example, families that frequently send digital photos of the children to relatives would notice a dramatic difference with wireless.

“Depending on what resolution your pictures are in, on dial-up it would take two to five minutes to send one picture, where with regular high-speed Internet it will take maybe five seconds-and that’s even with a virus-scanning program,” Braden said.

Limitations of wireless

The speed of wireless gives it an obvious advantage, but it has had some limitations. Higher cost is one, but it also has been vulnerable to “line of sight” and distance issues-particularly in the early days of Prairie iNet.

Because the system uses microwave signals beamed from the top of tall buildings-grain elevators most often-potential customers had to have a direct line of site to the top of the elevator and be located within five to eight miles of it in order to receive an adequate signal.

Today with DTN, Braden said, the direct line of sight still holds, but the distance has been extended to seven to 10 miles, and transmitters have been installed in more communities.

“If you’re between Marion and Hillsboro, there may be spots that are questionable,” Braden said regarding potential customers in the countryside.

“If you’re out toward Lehigh, you have three towers around you. If you can’t hit one, turn (the receiver) the opposite direction and you can hit Durham or Hillsboro. Half of Lehigh is covered by the Canton tower and the other half by the Hillsboro tower.”

Reliability of service

With better coverage for wireless transmission, the key issues in the near future likely will be service-as well as price, of course.

Braden said he has heard some say that poor weather affects the reliability of wireless Internet, but that hasn’t been his experience.

“I haven’t had any trouble at all,” he said. “With DTN high speed, if it’s cloudy and raining, your signal strength actually increases. The clouds are keeping the signal more consolidated.”

Braden said that isn’t always the case with direct-wave satellite Internet services, which he used in the past.

“It could be sprinkling and you’d be knocked off line,” he said.

A new fiber-optic option

Weather and line-of-sight definitely will not be issues with the fiber-optic system Galaxy plans to bring to the market next month, Joiner said.

“The way our systems are designed, the reliability of the network-we’re down there rebuilding it now with fiber-it’s 99.7 percent, which is what a phone system is,” he said.

“If we do have problems, it’s in small pockets, which we can identify and fix,” he added.

Joiner said his company will offer packages that could include a combination of television and Internet services, or either service separately.

Customers also can choose between speeds of 512 and 768 kilobits-which he said should be more than enough for most Internet users.

“Most Web sites are only going 300 kilobits per second,” Joiner said. “There’s only so much bandwidth they can share among people visiting (the Web site), and they’re not about to let you go ahead and grab all of it. So they’re going to regulate it.”

Joiner said “the full gamut” of TV and Internet service will cost “less than $100 a month,” and a package with basic (slower) service will cost about $75 per month.

Just as a customer’s computer needs to be equipped to handle wireless transmission, Joiner said the same is true for the fiber-optic option Galaxy will be offering.

“They only need an ethernet card in their computer, which they can buy either on the Internet or at any electronics place-they generally run between $6 and $7,” he said. “As a matter of fact, in that area we’ll probably have some contractors and will put it in for free.”

He said customers also will need a cable modem, which they can rent for between $3 and $5 a month, or buy outright at an electronics outlet.

Joiner said PC customers will need to run the program Windows 98 SE or above in their computers, and be equipped with at least 128K memory.

“The more (RAM) memory that you have, the faster you’re going to be able to experience it because you’re regulated by how fast your computer can process the information,” Joiner said.

TCT coming soon

When TCT does come to Hillsboro, spokesman Scott Bankes said it will offer five pricing options from a 384-kilobit connection for residential users to a 786-kilobit connection for businesses. The latter will include five e-mail addresses and Internet access without charge.

“Normally our installation fee is $99,” Bankes said. “However, when we first come into town, we’re going to wave the installation fee for the first 25 customers.”

Limits to competition

DTN Speednet, which is offered both by Braden Computer and Print Source Direct/Hillsboro Free Press in Hillsboro, is the first broadband, high-speed option in Hillsboro, but Braden said he welcomes competition because it ultimately will result in better options for local consumers.

He said his only concern regarding more providers of wireless service is the limitation inherent in the number of available channels with which to transmit signals into the market. (See sidebar.)

Braden said Galaxy’s fiber-optic will appeal to some customers, but ultimately that service can only be as reliable as the company that provides it.

“I’m not going to knock cable,” he said. “Cable’s hard line is more reliable, for sure. As for how well it’s going to work through Galaxy, who knows?”

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