Widening the Internet Highway to Rural America

Mike Chapman climbs onto the roof of the Mountaineer Food Bank. i i

Mike Chapman climbs onto the roof of the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway, W.Va., to test wireless equipment. By attaching a small satellite dish to a TV antenna, he can provide wireless Internet access to the food bank and other businesses nearby. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
Mike Chapman climbs onto the roof of the Mountaineer Food Bank.

Mike Chapman climbs onto the roof of the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway, W.Va., to test wireless equipment. By attaching a small satellite dish to a TV antenna, he can provide wireless Internet access to the food bank and other businesses nearby.

Andrea Hsu, NPR
John Gawthrop and Mike Chapman i i

John Gawthrop, left, and Mike Chapman stand in Gawthrop's department store, which also serves as the office for West Virginia Broadband. Gawthrop says the broadband connection allows him to listen to religious programs online. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
John Gawthrop and Mike Chapman

John Gawthrop, left, and Mike Chapman stand in Gawthrop's department store, which also serves as the office for West Virginia Broadband. Gawthrop says the broadband connection allows him to listen to religious programs online.

Andrea Hsu, NPR
Broadband access chart i i

Access to high-speed Internet service has been rising, but rural areas lag cities and suburbs. As of September, 42 percent of adults living in urban areas had broadband at home, compared with 40 percent in the suburbs and 24 percent in rural America. Pew Internet Project hide caption

itoggle caption Pew Internet Project
Broadband access chart

Access to high-speed Internet service has been rising, but rural areas lag cities and suburbs. As of September, 42 percent of adults living in urban areas had broadband at home, compared with 40 percent in the suburbs and 24 percent in rural America.

Pew Internet Project
Broadband providers map i i

High-speed Internet providers by zip code, as of December 2004. Areas in blue have seven or more providers, areas in brown have four to five and areas in tan one to three. FCC hide caption

itoggle caption FCC
Broadband providers map

High-speed Internet providers by zip code, as of December 2004. Areas in blue have seven or more providers, areas in brown have four to five and areas in tan one to three.

FCC

More and more Americans take high-speed Internet service for granted. But for rural America, getting broadband access can be a major challenge. Cable and phone companies often won't provide it: it would be a huge investment with minimal return. So some communities are figuring out solutions for themselves.

About two years ago, Mike Chapman decided to help bring wireless Internet to the community where he grew up in Braxton County, W.Va. Chapman put on a climbing harness, shook back his aversion to heights and scaled a tower on a hill at the geographic center of the state to put a microwave dish on top. The dish receives a wireless signal from another tower 10 miles away and redistributes it to the homes nearby.

Chapman, 24, is co-founder of West Virginia Broadband, a nonprofit volunteer-run organization that provides Internet service to residents and businesses who were trapped in the slow-moving world of dialup.

One of those customers is Covey Engineering in the town of Gassaway. Office manager Brenda Naye had to log off her dialup connection whenever she wanted to send a fax, and sending big e-mail attachments was painfully slow.

Chapman and a few fellow volunteers started their network with about $10,000. It costs very little to keep it running. West Virginia Broadband leases dish space on most of the seven towers it uses for $1 a year. They buy their bandwidth — the wireless signal — from a wholesaler for about $600 a month, and buy surplus equipment on eBay.

The voluntary donations from the 100 or so people who use the wireless service more than cover the expenses. Members are asked to contribute whatever they feel it's worth.

High-speed DSL service is available through Verizon, but only to those who live close to town. Chapman says it might offer advantages over the volunteer service — the phone company has round-the-clock customer service.

Mark Polen of the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association doesn't see the community wireless network as a threat. He says it may be "quite some time" before it's feasible for commercial providers to enter sparsely populated areas like this one.

Chapman feels a commitment to rural areas that get left behind, like this one in West Virginia. Ask him about the satisfaction of setting up the community wireless network and he'll mention two women who are attending online universities — or grandparents easily e-mailing their grandchildren far away.

"When you have a community effort like this, the members of the community feel a sense of ownership," Chapman says. "We may operate [the network], but it's held in the trust of citizens of the community. It's for the public benefit and for the public good."

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