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Warwick moves to speed up wireless

WARWICK — While Wired West continues to work on its “middle-mile” of Internet backbone in western Massachusetts, Warwick is adding to its own wireless last mile.

The newest addition to Warwick broadband is a WiMAX system, which promises to provide faster connections and a stronger signal to Warwick homes than does the current system.

In 2009, high-speed Internet came to Warwick, by way of transmitters on the radio tower atop Mount Grace, and on a previously unused cell phone tower on Route 78. Household receivers beam data back and forth to the towers, which then sends it on via microwave radio to a corresponding tower on Mount Tom, where it then links up with the wired Internet backbone.

Once Wired West brings fiber-optic cable to town, that radio link to Mount Tom will no longer be needed. That hard-wired connection is expected to greatly increase connection speeds and bandwidth. Town Coordinator David Young expects Wired West to bring fiber optics to town between April and June.

Last month, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which operates the Mount Grace tower, approved Warwick’s request to install a new wireless broadband transmitter there, which uses WiMAX technology.

“WiMAX will provide higher-speed connections, and it’s far less proprietary,” said Young. The town’s existing wireless broadband equipment is manufactured by Motorola, and is only compatible with receivers made by that company.

“WiMAX is becoming an international standard,” as opposed to other telecommunications protocols, which vary by manufacturer and region, added Young. Many laptops are now WiMAX-enabled right out of the box, and Young expects that, within a few years, most laptops will come equipped with the technology, just as they’re sold with WiFi installed today.

WiFi requires customers to use a router, most of which send a wireless signal with an indoor range of about 100 feet.

WiMAX is much more centralized, and provides a far greater range, with a four- to six-mile optimal range, and a maximum range of 30 miles, according to the Intel Corp. website. It also doesn’t require a router — just a receiving device.

While customers will need to purchase their own WiMAX-enabled device or receiver, the town’s transmitter was purchased with a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

Young waited 14 months to receive DCR’s permission to use WiMAX on the Mount Grace tower, and it’s already been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. Now, he said, all he needs is a few warm days to climb the tower and test the system.

“One of the first tests is to make sure it doesn’t interfere with any of the (public safety) communications equipment already up there,” said Young.

Young hopes to have The WiMAX system fired up and tested in the coming weeks.

Costs

When Warwick Broadband came into being in 2009, customers had to pay a hefty $500 initial fee for equipment and installation. Now, new customers can get connected for a $100 initial fee, waived for income-eligible residents. Two tiers of service are available, one for $50 per month, and a half-speed version for $30 a month.

It’s caught on quite a bit since 2009. Two months after it went online, there were about 20 connections, including town buildings. Now, more than half of the town’s 300 households are hooked up; Young reported that, as of December, there were more than 160 customers.

Their monthly fees go into an enterprise fund, which was started with $40,000 approved by town meeting voters. The fund is used to repay the town’s investment, as well as upgrades and operating costs for the broadband system, making it a self-sustaining venture.

Cell coverage

While Warwick has been able to bring high-speed Internet to most of town, poor cell phone coverage remains an issue.

Young said several cell phone providers offer short-range service extenders to consumers. Like WiFi, they hook up to a high-speed Internet connection, and transmit a signal strong enough to cover a house, allowing a cell phone to act like a cordless handset.

But hope for more townwide coverage could be on the horizon.

Young said he’s been looking into two companies, CoverageCo and Vanu, that make long-range, tower-mounted cell phone extenders. Young said Sprint has agreed to work with CoverageCo. Though other carriers may follow suit, Young encouraged Warwick residents to consider switching to Sprint next time their cell phone contracts expire.

Vanu’s technology is capable of interacting with any cell phone provider, as long as carriers agree to work with the company. The company has agreed to let Warwick test one of its devices on the Mount Grace and Route 78 towers in the spring.

With either system, said Young, it could be difficult for the town to recoup an investment. With no way to directly bill users, as it does for Internet service, Warwick would have to form agreements with cell phone carriers, which Young said could prove difficult.

“Nowadays, nobody sees roaming charges anymore,” but carriers still bill each other when users access off-network towers, said Young. “But we don’t have their standing.”

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