MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Every day it seems like another city is announcing plans for a wireless Internet network. New Orleans and Philadelphia are in the news. Both are rolling out citywide Wi-Fi--also Lompoc, California, Tempe, Arizona, and Akron, Ohio. But for rural America, getting high-speed Internet 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.
BLOCK: And the solution in Braxton County, West Virginia, is the brainchild of a high-speed 24-year-old.
Mr. MIKE CHAPMAN (Co-founder, West Virginia Broadband): I tend to walk a lot faster than everyone else. My name is Mike Chapman, and I'm the co-founder of West Virginia Broadband, a non-profit formed in 2003 to provide Internet access--high-speed Internet access to areas that previously had none.
BLOCK: I'm following Mike Chapman up a hill in the geographic center of West Virginia by the Braxton County Airport, which owns a tower here.
Mr. CHAPMAN: I want you to notice something--let's just walk to the very top.
BLOCK: Mike Chapman has a scrubbed, wide-open face. He looks even younger than 24. About a year ago he put on a climbing harness, shook back his aversion to heights and scaled the tower to put a dish on top. It receives a wireless signal from another tower 10 miles away and redistributes it to the homes nearby.
Mr. CHAPMAN: One thing you'll notice in rural Appalachia, the mountains are closely spaced and of similar height. Now this is a blessing and a curse because the mountains limit how far you can see and, therefore, the area that you can cover. But also, as you can see, this tower's not very tall because the natural height of the mountains gives you a pretty big height advantage already.
BLOCK: West Virginia Broadband has dishes on seven towers like this one, plus two dozen relay stations to fill in coverage gaps. In the world of broadband, this mountainous area is considered geographically challenged. But Mike Chapman has a 24-year-old's optimism and a bracing kind of gumption. He's always figuring out ways to expand the network still further.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Can we have a ladder this time?
BLOCK: He heads up a wobbly ladder in a freezing wind, up onto the roof of a community food bank in the nearby town of Gassaway. He's lugging a laptop, binoculars and a parabolic microwave dish.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Are we ready?
(Soundbite of noises from laptop)
BLOCK: That musical pinging is the laptop saying, `I see a wireless signal, and I like it.'
Mr. CHAPMAN: OK, we've picked it up.
(Soundbite of noises from laptop)
Mr. CHAPMAN: We have a signal already, so we are 90 percent of the way there. We hopefully do this on a more favorable day.
BLOCK: Mike figures if he sets up a dish on the roof of the food bank, he can extend the wireless reach to the half-dozen businesses on this hill: the food bank, a fitness center, the self-storage facility and Covey Engineering. We go in and find office manager Brenda May(ph), naturally, at her computer.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Here's the good news. You see where the antenna is?
Ms. BRENDA MAY (Office Manager, Covey Engineering): Oh, yeah.
Mr. CHAPMAN: That is a prime location to put a dish up and feed this entire area out here. As soon as we can get that up there, you can get broadband Internet access out here.
Ms. MAY: Wireless?
Mr. CHAPMAN: Mm-hmm.
BLOCK: Covey Engineering has no high-speed access, just dial-up, and they're tired of it. They have to log off every time they want to send a fax, and sending big attachments by e-mail is painfully slow.
Ms. MAY: We have had some that got to the point that they would drop off; that after, say, like an hour, they'll just drop off and not go at all.
BLOCK: They'll just kind of give up?
Ms. MAY: Right.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Zenan!
Mr. ZENAN PAVLOVSKY(ph): Holy cow. Come in.
BLOCK: Mike takes us to meet one of his happy wireless users, Zenan Pavlovsky. He's a Polish emigre who started his own business selling wood-fuel boilers for home heating. He does most of his business over the Internet, which drove him crazy when all he had was dial-up. Then he found Mike Chapman. And pretty soon Mike had custom-designed a way to stretch the wireless signal to Zenan's house, which is out of range of the network's towers. The two men worked into the night stringing cable through the trees and over a hill.
Mr. PAVLOVSKY: You wouldn't believe ...(unintelligible) be out here. We'd throw the wire--you know, there are buckets hanging on there in the woods. You could see them. Antennas--that's high-tech stuff, but homemade. You know, in the moonlight we're splicing the cable, we're soldering wires. We're running in the woods. He run like a deer out there. I'm huffing and puffing. It's quite funny things, but it works, and it could be done, and we have plans for more.
BLOCK: Mike Chapman and a few fellow volunteers started their network with about $10,000, and the stunning thing is how little it costs to keep the network running. The group leases dish space on most of the towers for a dollar a year. They buy their bandwidth, the wireless signal, from a wholesaler for about $600 a month. They buy surplus equipment off eBay. The voluntary donations from the hundred or so people who use the wireless service more than cover the expenses. But you don't have to pay anything. Members are simply asked to contribute whatever they feel it's worth.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
BLOCK: You can drive around the county and log on from your car.
Mr. CHAPMAN: We're going down the highway, and I'm on the Internet.
BLOCK: Mike Chapman spent his teen-age years in Braxton County. His parents still live here, though he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, now. His paying job is consulting about wireless and Internet marketing, but you get the sense that his true love is this little network that could.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Any community can, step by step, build themselves pretty much a world-class network. It just takes maybe one person that's familiar with radio and tower work, another that would be an expert in computers and Internet working and many other volunteers along the way. I certainly didn't do this all myself.
BLOCK: We meet some of those volunteers in downtown Gassaway.
(Soundbite of door chime; dog barking)
BLOCK: That's Heidi(ph), the 15-year-old miniature schnauzer, at the headquarters of West Virginia Broadband.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Heidi is the protector of all the infrastructure. She's a...
Mr. JOHN GALTHROP(ph) (Owner, John's Department Store): That's right. She protects all of us.
BLOCK: Now Mike Chapman is joking about the infrastructure. The wireless network gets its mail here at John's Department Store on Elk Street. It's a sleepy, old-time store. You can get Red Wing work boots, thermal underwear, sewing notions, zippers and thread. The owner is John Galthrop, 73 years old. He's also president of the board of West Virginia Broadband. Smack in the middle of the store is his shiny white iMac; that's where he'll use his wireless Internet connection.
Mr. GALTHROP: The reason I like it, I like to listen to some good--mostly pastors like Chuck Swindoll, James Dobson. And I couldn't get them on my regular Internet here at the store. I was charged long distance, and so really I didn't think I could afford it. So when Michael came up with the wireless, it suited me just fine. And I was listening to the Internet this morning. I keep it on just about all the time.
BLOCK: Next door at Family Furniture, they're unpacking new stock as the Braxton County ad-hoc help desk takes a call.
Mr. BRAD DUFFIELD(ph) (Owner, Family Furniture): Go to My Computer, then go to the Control Panel...
BLOCK: Brad Duffield owns the furniture store.
Mr. DUFFIELD: ...and then there should be Network Connections.
BLOCK: He's also one of the most active volunteers, helping to keep the community wireless network going.
Mr. DUFFIELD: Maybe what you'll need to do is just bring that thing in with you, and I'll see if I can reconfigure that.
BLOCK: About 900 people live in Gassaway, and if you live close to town, you can now buy DSL service through the phone company. Verizon started offering the service this year, about a year after the community wireless started up. And Mike Chapman admits there could be some advantages to going with the phone company.
Mr. CHAPMAN: Your DSL cable providers often have someone on call 24 hours a day to answer questions about e-mail or if a person gets a virus or something like that. If you call in after business hours, you won't have anyone to talk to with local community efforts like this, so there is a trade-off.
BLOCK: You might think the telephone and cable companies would be fighting a local wireless network like this one. After all, it is the competition. But Mark Poland(ph), with the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, doesn't see the community wireless network as a threat.
Mr. MARK POLAND (West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association): To be honest with you, at this point in the development process in these rural areas, it's going to be quite some time, I think, before it's going to be economically feasible for the commercial providers to really look at those areas.
BLOCK: You think that's still some time away?
Mr. POLAND: In the very most rural, most sparsely populated areas, yes.
BLOCK: Will it ever be feasible, do you think?
Mr. POLAND: It may not be.
BLOCK: Mike 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 were attending online universities or grandparents easily e-mailing their grandchildren far away.
Mr. CHAPMAN: When you have a community effort like this, the members of the community feel a sense of ownership of--you know, we have this network here. We may operate it, but it's held in the trust of the citizens of the community; that it's for the public benefit and for the public good.
BLOCK: Mike Chapman says he is surprised how easy it was to set up this network; also surprised many other rural communities haven't explored doing the same. He says there's big demand for a high-speed access in even the smallest of towns, and solutions can be found there, too.
(Soundbite of noises from laptop)
Mr. CHAPMAN: OK.
BLOCK: You can learn more about rural broadband access at our Web site, npr.org.