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Rural Rescue Mesh-ion

When the Florence Mill, the largest employer in the town of Forest City, North Carolina, shut down in 2001, city officials knew they had two choices: sit by and watch the town decay, or take immediate action to reinvent the small city of 7500 people in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.

Like many small rural communities in the "textile belt" of North Carolina and South Carolina, Forest City saw its economic base wither away as the U.S. textile business shifted its manufacturing overseas. Rutherford County, in which Forest City lies, lost some 6000 jobs between 2000 and 2006. The town had some advantages, including owning its own utilities, which gives it a city budget of $23 million as compared to around $5 million for other N.C. towns of comparable size. The first thing the city did was to buy the old mill building, around which the town had grown up.

Built in 1897, the former Florence Mill is now the site of a $25 million project that will house condominiums, an eight-screen movie theater, restaurants, and the new corporate headquarters of wireless service provider Sky Catcher Communications -- which, along with wireless mesh equipment maker Firetide Inc. , is also building a downtown mesh WiFi network that will eventually spread to encompass all of Forest City plus some of the nearby hamlets.

The relationship between Sky Catcher, a homegrown North Carolina-based wireless ISP, and Forest City represents the flip side of grandiose muni WiFi projects like those in San Francisco and Philadelphia, which after announcing widely publicized plans have run into unforeseen obstacles over the last year. (See Imbroglio by the Bay.)

High speed down dirt roads

Planning for a "charrette," or intensive three-day planning and design seminar involving national architects and planners from the American Institute of Architects, in 2003, Forest City town planner Danielle Withrow discovered she had a major problem: The community meeting facility where the event would took place had no Internet connectivity of any kind.

"I called [BellSouth,] the phone company, and they said 'Yeah, if you sign a year's contract we can get it in in about three days,'" Withrow recalls. "I called [Northland Cable], our cable company, and they said 'We're close but we're not there yet.' I called Sky Catcher, and they said 'We'll have it up and running in an hour and a half, and we'll also throw in free phone service to anywhere in the world.' I said 'Whoa.'"

It became apparent to Withrow and other city officials that Sky Catcher's satellite-based wireless solution, coupled with wireless mesh equipment from Firetide, represented not only a quick fix but an economic-development engine for the beleaguered town.

"We saw that this affordable next-generation wireless mesh was the way to go," says Withrow. "It sounded like something the town needed to seriously look into and embrace so that we as a small town can be competitive."

Founded two years ago to provide wireless satellite solutions to governments and enterprises in rural areas, it offers a service called "Dirt Road High Speed," a broadband service that includes wireless VOIP services, including conference calling, remote management, and remote access. In deployments like the Forest City system, Sky Catcher partners with Firetide to provide mesh nodes distributing the connection to multiple buildings, public spaces, and homes. The combination, says Firetide VP of marketing Mike Downes, provides benefits in both directions.

The advantages of being small

"The mesh network provides an economic means to distribute the satellite feed through multiple buildings in a rural town or area," Downes explains. "The satellite provides an inexpensive backhaul -- without it, expensive cabling would be required."

Small towns like Forest City have a couple of advantages over big cities in deploying municipal mesh networks: For one thing, it's easier to cover the three square miles of downtown Forest City (eventually the network will encompass 11 square miles) than the entire 135 square miles of Philadelphia. For another, points out Withrow, when your neighbor is building your network, it's easier to get responsive service: "We've got the cell phone number of [Sky Catcher CEO] Don Thompson."

The symbiotic relationship between Sky Catcher (formed in Rutherfordton, a few miles up the road from Forest City) and the town means that accessibility will likely deepen. Sky Catcher not only plans to shift its corporate headquarters in the old Florence Mill building, downtown; it will relocate its network operations center, its call center, and its satellite earth station on 10 acres provided by the town.

The cost to Forest City for the network itself? About $120,000 for the initial three-square-mile WiFi zone. The city expects that network to pay for itself in two years.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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