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Rural Areas, Small Towns Start Seeing 3G

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There's always been the feeling that rural areas and small towns lag behind their big city cousins in access to broadband communications and the convergent applications they provide.

Well, kinda. It's false if the implication is that the operators who serve these areas are not as savvy or sophisticated as the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world. As we've said in this space before, it simply isn't so. The reality is quite the opposite: Small wireline operators have less regulatory oversight and fewer layers of bureaucracy and, thus, can move more quickly when opportunities present themselves.

The other side of the coin is that rural America is expansive and these companies' projects tend not to get noticed. Innovation by a handful of carriers doesn't mean that the average ranch or prairie town has access to platforms as potent as what is available in New York City, Boston or L.A. The companies also don't have the marketing machines of the big operators.

The scenario is a bit different in wireless. Up in the air, big carriers are decidedly ahead as 3G takes hold. While it's true that Verizon Wireless, Cingular and the others serve a lot of remote areas, their focus is the cities. This WirelessWeek piece suggests that rural-focused, tier-2 cellular operators are starting to upgrade to 3G. They are doing this mainly, of course, to satisfy their customers. There is a second driver: Not upgrading to faster speeds endangers roaming agreements with the tier-1 heavyweights.

Increasingly, people in rural areas have options. WiMax, for example, may make its biggest initial impact in rural areas (as well as underdeveloped nations). A more esoteric emerging option is broadband over powerline (BPL), which clearly isn't as glitzy as fiber (it's a heck of a lot slower) but can quickly be as ubiquitous as, well, power lines. Satellite companies also are queuing up to take a shot at rural areas.

This is all very promising. The bottom line, it seems, is that the gap between cities and the hinterlands will to a certain extent fade -- but will never disappear.

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