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Velocity in Kansas offers digital divide blueprint

A tiny fixed wireless Internet provider in rural Kansas may offer a glimpse at the future of broadband and how it might bridge the digital divide. The provider is owned by a utility cooperative and used COVID-19 stimulus money to build an LTE network to connect hundreds of residents to the Internet during the darkest days of the pandemic.

"The pandemic has made it very clear that fixed wireless is one of the most efficient and cost-effective solutions to overcome broadband connectivity challenges in rural America," proclaimed Patrick Buthmann, VP of sales and business development at BLiNQ Networks, which provided the equipment for Velocity's network in Kansas.

Buthmann's position is not a surprise. After all, the Biden administration is pushing a proposal that would allocate up to $100 billion for similar projects all over the country. However, there's a heated debate over whether that money should be spent on speedy fiber networks or slower, cheaper alternatives, such as fixed wireless technologies.

And that's why BLiNQ and Velocity are touting their new network in western Greenwood County, Kansas. Indeed, BLiNQ is using the buildout as a case study for how it might approach the digital divide all over the US and elsewhere.

New connections amid pandemic spikes

Velocity's efforts started late last year after the company won roughly $1.5 million from Kansas' Connectivity Emergency Response Grant (CERG), which was funded by CARES Act coronavirus stimulus money. Velocity is a fixed wireless Internet provider with around 4,000 customers. It was founded in 2018 by the Butler Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The co-op was incorporated in 1938 by Kansas residents who banded together to build their own electricity network after local suppliers refused to do so.

Velocity relies on the co-op's fiber backbone and uses fixed wireless technologies to reach customers. "The hybrid [wired-wireless] system provides adequate speeds for the next several years at a fraction of the investment and therefore [charges] rates that the consumer will pay," BLiNQ representatives explained in response to questions from Light Reading.

Velocity typically operates in the unlicensed 5GHz band, but after receiving CERG funding the company decided to build a network with the newly unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS band with a Spectrum Access System (SAS) from CommScope, LTE hardware from BLiNQ Networks and engineering and construction services from PCS Technologies.

The result, constructed over the course of a few months at the end of last year, is a network spanning six monopoles and one tower, covering around 200 residential and business accounts, with speeds up to 100 Mbit/s and prices starting at $50 per month.

By the end of this year, Velocity could double the size of that network.

Velocity's deployment is important because it lines up with many of the elements in Biden's bigger broadband plan. Specifically, Velocity is operated by the kinds of local co-ops that Biden is hoping to support with his plan, and offers speeds that the Biden administration appears to be willing to support in its pursuit of digital divide solutions.

That's undoubtedly music to the ears of vendors like BLiNQ. Whether Biden will be successful in his broadband push remains to be seen, however. Legislators, lobbyists and others are currently debating exactly how funding might be allocated for broadband in rural and urban areas.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

A version of this article first appeared on Broadband World News.

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