Polar Sees Long-Term Appeal of 700 MHz Spectrum

Most rural carriers have been offering high-speed wireless Internet access (HSI) in their service areas for quite some time. Wireless Internet is advantageous in rural areas, where dense forestry often makes it expensive and technically difficult for telcos to provide conventional wireline broadband. While wireless voice and Internet services are not new to most rural telcos, Polar Communications (Park River, N.D.) touts itself as the first company in the United States to provide HSI through a repeater site on the 700 MHz frequency.

In 1998, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reallocated licensing areas in the lower 700 MHz band from cable television providers, rural telcos, particularly those in the western United States, were given a unique window of opportunity to bid on spectrum that would accommodate advanced service offerings. The 700 MHz band opened up a new broadband wireless access market that enhances the non-line-of-sight or near-line-of-sight (NLOS) service needed to overcome obstruction from trees.

Snap It Up

Since few incumbent TV broadcasters west of the Mississippi River operated on the C-block of auctioned spectrum-TV channel 54 (710 MHz to 716 MHz) and channel 59 (740 MHz to 746 MHz), telcos would not have to pay to relocate the incumbent broadcasters, or to wait until the broadcasters’ 2006 deadline for vacating the frequencies. Polar immediately jumped on the bandwagon.

“We believe that owning a license to spectrum is just as important as being an ILEC (incumbent local exchange carrier), so it is very important to Polar’s board that our company control spectrum in our service area, 700 MHz in particular,” said Polar General Manager Dave Dunning.

“In the hierarchy of licensed and unlicensed spectrum, licensed spectrum is always a better option in terms of interference and the assurance of a clear channel. [The FCC’s auction] provided 700 MHz spectrum at a price that was very reasonable for small, rural carriers. Especially because of its relatively low price, we believe our license in the 700 MHz band will prove an excellent long-term investment,” he said.

Outdoing the Competition

Dunning said he is confident this new technology will give Polar a definitive edge over its local competitors, which use unlicensed spectrum to deploy wireless Internet. “Utilizing this frequency will allow us to provide greater non-line-of-sight and near-line-of-sight service. With a license, we can use a higher powered transmitter that has better non-line-of-sight characteristics, so that at the edges of our coverage areas, this extra power will set us apart from our unlicensed counterparts,” he said.

Indeed, the implementation of a 700 MHz broadband system is an ideal method for rural telcos to extend the reach of their wireless Internet service.

Polar is a point in case. The company is plagued by a declining population in its service area — the result of the continual buyout of locally owned farmland by larger operations.

As the distance between customers spreads further apart, the case for wireless service becomes even stronger to ensure that Internet access remains available to all of Polar’s service areas. Dunning noted that wireless service is a good investment because it results in little stranded investment, one of the primary problems for wireline deployment in rural areas.

With the new 700 MHz system, a solitary base station can provide high-speed wireless service within a 25-mile radius to as many as 1,000 end subscribers, and NLOS deployments are possible within the first 12 to 15 miles. Karl Blake, Polar’s Internet operations supervisor, said the system is an excellent option for rural telcos with similar hard-to-reach, underobackupserved residences and businesses.

Dunning agreed: “In our service territory, it is not feasible to deliver HSI via landline. 700 MHz is a great alternative that provides a service to customers [that is] not viable for wireline broadband.”

Picking the Right Vendor

Polar selected Palo Alto, Calif.-based Vyyo as its vendor for the 700 MHz system. In narrowing down potential suppliers, the choice for Polar was somewhat easier because the telco had worked with Vyyo on the implementation of its MMDS (multichannel multipoint distribution service) offering, which Polar deployed in northeast North Dakota in 2002.

Most attractive to Polar in its search for a supplier of 700 MHz-compatible equipment, however, was Vyyo’s customer premise equipment (CPE). “Purchasing equipment at a reasonably priced CPE, approximately $365, is the key to maintaining a successful business plan,” Dunning said.

Polar also found that integrating the two systems-MMDS and 700 MHz-would optimize its wireless network, and set about launching the integrated system in the city of Grand Forks, an area dense with trees, in August. Using the same vendor for both technologies has proven not only to be a financially viable option, but also has resulted in greater equipment efficiencies, Dunning said.

By integrating the systems, both technologies simultaneously cover the area with wireless Internet access, and since the equipment for both comes from the same vendor, they can share a power supply, which saves Polar a considerable amount of money. “By going to the same vendor for both technologies,” Dunning explained, “we saved nearly $40,000 on this site alone.”

Polar anticipates that its new 700 MHz system, in conjunction with its MMDS system as backhaul transport, will result in a 30 percent to 50 percent coverage rate for HSI. This is no small feat, considering Polar provides service to some 12,500 telephone customers over 3,700 square miles of territory in rural North Dakota and Minnesota.

Telling Customers

Although Polar doesn’t specifically promote its wireless capabilities on the 700 MHz frequency, the company blankets all of its high-speed Internet solutions with its marketing efforts. “Customers don’t seem to care how they can get it, as long as it is fast and dependable, so when we run a promotion, we do not differentiate the services we provide, whether it’s through DSL, wireless or cable modem,” said marketing supervisor Joan Miller.

And that works, according to Miller. Simply promoting that the company has options for rural HSI has evoked a positive response from customers, especially businesses served by Qwest that don’t have comparable options. Most of Polar’s business customers have jumped on the HSI bandwagon, as have about 1,500 residential customers.

“Our rural area is changing so fast,” Miller added. “We don’t have as many farmers and small operations, as they are moving into cities and selling their land to larger farming operations. Our goal is to bring up-to-date telecommunications services to our entire service area, and wireless, through 700 MHz, will help us accomplish that goal.”

Polar’s experience has caught the attention of other telecommunications providers as well, and several have been in contact with the telco requesting a visit to learn what is involved with implementing this service to their customers, or to use the spectrum for some other emerging telecommunications service.

“Since this is a relatively new technology,” Dunning said, “vendors will continue to come up with innovative ways to utilize this piece of spectrum. It’s critical for small companies like ours to control spectrum, if it is in any way possible, because the innovations [will be] spectacular over the next 10 years.”

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