The city of Milledgeville, Georgia may be a revealing case study of how broadband stimulus grants may impact rural WiMAX, and may also hint at Clearwire’s potential broadband stimulus grant strategy. Milledgeville is a city of approximately 12,000 (not counting college students) and is located about 50 miles northeast of Macon, Georgia. Clearwire is taking advantage of an $862,000 state grant to deploy their WiMAX service in Milledgeville, with a projected launch date of October 2009. Milledgeville city planner Russell Thompson tells macon.com that “Basically, [Clearwire] wouldn’t be doing business in Milledgeville unless there were incentives because the population is just not that large.”
Considering that the sheer number of cities and towns across the U.S. that resemble Milledgeville numbers in the thousands and the pending billions of stimulus grant funds that are soon to be available, one could certainly draw a bullish conclusion about the prospects of rural WiMAX. Of course wireline telco and cable operators will argue that only FTTH and HFC networks make sense for a prudent long term broadband strategy. But if recent events, including the partnership of NRTC and DigitalBridge Communications, and historical funding of broadband wireless projects by the Rural Utilities Service are any indication, WiMAX may indeed have a significant rural presence when it’s all said and done.
Will Clearwire play a bigger role in this potential scenario? They’ve been somewhat quiet about their broadband stimulus intentions and they’re quite busy executing their metro market strategy. But they heavily reference the Milledgeville case in their public comments for the broadband stimulus program, stating the “Milledgeville project shows that communities that are plagued by low-income, high unemployment and geographic isolation are likely to reap significant benefits when access to next generation mobile broadband is coupled with a plan to enhance public safety, education and job training/creation opportunities.” Almost music to regulator’s ears.
Since Milledgeville currently has broadband from dual providers, namely Charter and Windstream, Clearwire is also inserting it into the ‘unserved/underserved’ debate. Wireless providers argue that the absence of broadband wireless should qualify projects for broadband grant funding, regardless of what wireline broadband options are available. “Fixed and mobile broadband are two separate services serving different constituents targeted by the grant programs. Because mobile wireless broadband offers important capabilities that fixed services lack – such as the ability to provide Milledgeville’s police officers with real time access to crime databases while on patrol and the ability for university students to access educational resources wherever they are – NTIA should separately assess whether an area or population is ‘unserved’ or ‘underserved’ with regard to the availability of both fixed wireline/wireless and mobile wireless. Similarly, RUS should consider an area without mobile broadband access as lacking sufficient ‘high speed broadband service to facilitate rural economic development,’” says Clearwire in their comments.
After reviewing this, you get a sense of the gravity of what’s at stake. Should the broadband stimulus rules favor Clearwire’s position, it may well create a firestorm of activity with WiMAX and other wireless technologies. The extent of Clearwire’s involvement in that potential firestorm remains to be seen. Regardless, they’ll be plenty of others looking to replicate what’s going on in Milledgeville.
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