Connected: Country folk get broadband

When people rhapsodize about rural living in Albemarle County, they talk about the views, the quiet, and the space between them and their neighbors.

What they don't wax rhapsodic about: the lousy Internet connections and television reception that come with living in the sticks.

Now Waynesboro-based Ntelos has announced a wireless "portable broadband" that could change how connected rural residents are.

Unlike DSL, portable broadband doesn't need telephone lines and is available outside the standard three-mile radius from phone company HQ.

"It can go places traditional DSL doesn't," says James Dell, a Crozet resident who tested the portable broadband technology. "It offers pretty good coverage. For a small business or homeowner, it's pretty darn efficient."

Ntelos wanted to improve its DSL market. "We were missing out on suburban and rural customers," says Internet product planner Noel Munson, "particularly the more affluent suburban customers."

The company hooked up with Texas-based Navini Networks to provide the wireless technology and a modem that requires no exterior antenna. Ntelos claims portable broadband is as fast as T-1, DSL, or cable modem service. Starting at $49.95 a month, it costs far less than the triple-digit prices typical of other high-speed connections.

"It wasn't as fast as in town," says Dell, "but it's four to five times faster than the dial-up I was using."

Elizabeth Breeden, who lives south of I-64 on Old Lynchburg Road, had used dial-up and ISDN before she hooked up with Ntelos to test the new product. She calls the ISDN line "hell to get" and very expensive.

She says she's saving $100 a month by using the portable broadband. "For living in the country, it's been a godsend," she says. Better yet, her 20something kids are not complaining about Internet service.

"It's better than at college," says Skyler Breeden, a recent Goucher grad.

Her mother does worry about view pollution. "We used to look at three towers on Carter's Mountain," she says. "Now we're looking at six."

"We are not building towers," says Munson. "We're going to existing structures." Ntelos expects to add more towers in the Charlottesville-Waynesboro area and around Lynchburg this year, and hopes to have several thousand customers by year end.

Part of portable broadband's appeal for rural areas is its steerable beam. "It's a smart antenna that can go through trees or walls," says Munson.

And if you live in a hollow? "This service will not go through 10 billion tons of granite," Munson concedes.

Ntelos has some enthusiastic testers at UVA's Office of Telemedicine, which provides medical services to underserved, remote sites.

Technical manager Mike Patterson lists the product's advantages: It's broadband, it's mobile, and it's a secure connection, "which is big for us in the medical field."

By the end of the month, the Office of Telemedicine will be able to help a UVA physician see a patient in a remote location using videoconferencing. "The specialist at UVA will be able to interface with the patient and their doctor, and hopefully come up with a diagnosis," says Patterson. "That's what we're really excited about."

If you live here, broadband service may be in your future.

James Dell's portable broadband is "smaller than a waffle iron." He put in a window to get broadband service in Crozet.