Winter-Spring 2002

Northern New Mexico's Last Mile Technology: Wireless Service!
by Judith Pepper

With the growing use of the worldwide Internet, communication companies are providing high bandwidth fiber optic backbones to connect communities to the rest of the world. Left behind are the small rural towns and villages that communication companies cannot economically servicing. Broadband fixed wireless technology is providing a competitive alternative to solve this "last mile" or in many cases the last fifty miles of connectivity to bring technological equality to these small communities. La Plaza Telecommunity, a nonprofit 501c3 community technology center and network, is located in northern New Mexico's remote, rural community, Taos, NM. La Plaza has a three-fold mission:

  • Providing Internet access with dialup email accounts and 4 free public access sites;
  • Education and training, and;
  • A virtual community website.

La Plaza began services in 1994 with a T1 line and 24 modems, 1 free public access site, and free classes in Introduction to Email. In 1996 La Plaza installed two 56Kbps lines, a server and 5 modems in the villages of Questa (25 miles north of Taos) and Penasco (26 miles southeast of Taos) for dialup access and public access sites in each village, as the telecom had no plans to install fiber optic cable to these areas.

Questa Wireless Broadband Initiative

In 1998, La Plaza collaborated with the New Mexico Dept of Communication and developed a microwave radio wireless system with T1 speed for the Village of Questa. This system showcased to the New Mexico State Legislature public/private partnerships in using State microwave towers to develop broadband Internet services into rural areas that will never have fiber optic capabilities.

The Penasco School District, serving 800+ students, became aware of the Questa wireless model and in 1999 requested La Plaza to develop a similar wireless system for their computer labs and classrooms; thus, the Penasco Project was developed. The Penasco Project had some unusual demands, far from the normal WAN installations. The task was to provide Internet connectivity to the rural community of Penasco, located in northern New Mexico and surrounded by mountains on all sides. La Plaza was the closest ISP, some 26 miles to the North, with Picuris Peak, a 10,800-foot peak directly in line between the two towns.

Collaboration for this project required many partners including La Plaza, Penasco School District, U.S. Forest Service, La Serna Land Grant (who claims ownership of the property on the Picuris Peak), Integrity Networking Systems, La Jicarita Enterprises, and a private snow mobile company. La Plaza applied and received permission to use the U.S. Forest Service Ranger Station tower and outbuilding atop Picuris Peak.

One Wireless Technology Solution

Wireless equipment manufacturers have designed radios for specific use in Wide Area Networks, WANs. These radios, designated Wireless Ethernet Bridges, are designed to be fully compatible with computer networking standards. They have standard Ethernet interfaces, 10baseTX or 100BaseTX, which are connected by a standard RJ-45 connector. Many bandwidth options are available from several hundred Kbps to over 100 Mbps.

Tsunami radios, manufactured by Western Multiplex, were selected for the Penasco Project. These Wireless Bridges operate in the unlicensed Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) band of 2.4 Ghz and do not require FCC licensing. The wavelength is not affected by adverse weather of rain or snow. The radios have a wide temperature operating range, necessary for locating at the mountain peak where extreme temperatures are common. The radios operate over a wide range of DC voltage, lending themselves to be powered by a solar / storage battery power supply. The radios also provide the maximum RF output allowed by FCC regulation for that frequency. New wires were placed on the tower to ensure proper leverage for placement of the antennas, golf batteries were installed in the outbuilding and 18 solar panels were installed surrounding the outbuilding to supplement the existing systems in place that powered the government and private transmitters.

The following is an account by the Integrity engineer of the actual install:

"The original schedule called for installation during the late summer of 1999. By the time all the approvals from the government agencies and the landowners were obtained it was February 28, 2000 when the install was attempted. Reaching the top of Picuris Peak at that time of year was a major accomplishment in itself. Three snowmobiles were rented and the services of a mountain guide were obtained. The trail wound around the mountain and next to shear cliffs, sometimes through snowdrifts deeper than one could stand. One snowmobile pulled a large sled loaded with radio gear including two large 2-ft diameter antennas. Over the more than six-mile trip up the mountain the sled and pulling snowmobile tipped over and got stuck several times. It took approximately 2.5 hours to reach the ranger station atop the peak. It was a bright sunny day. The air was clear and crisp, and you could see for miles to the horizon. The sun was warming and the temperature was about 35 degrees. As we worked we noticed the air was thin and we tired more quickly. We quickly got the first link up and running and measured very close to the calculated signal strength. The second link was installed with equal success and we started to pack up our equipment as the day was waning and the temperature was dropping. As we started down the mountain the snow was wet and heavy. As we approached the bottom of the mountain we encountered large segments of the trail that had turned to mud. The unusually warm day, which gave us some comfort at the top of the mountain, had melted the shallow snow layer at the base of the mountain. The snowmobile pulling the sled had a great deal of difficulty traveling through the mud. Several times the sled would get bogged down and the drive belt of the snowmobile slipped and burned. About a mile before we reached the meadow next to the parking area, all the snow was gone and an ATV had to haul personnel and equipment through the mud."

With wireless link in place, the Penasco school computer labs were able to connect to La Plaza Telecommunity for Internet access. The link provided T1 bandwidth at a reasonable initial cost and no recurring monthly fee. The 800+ students enjoy T1 speed, as does the public access site sponsored by La Plaza. Through cooperation with the school, other organizations in the Penasco area are able to have fast Internet access. One such organization is the La Jicarita Enterprise Zone office based in Penasco, which provides economic development and e-commerce opportunities to over 9,500 native New Mexicans in three Northern New Mexico counties. The entire Penasco Valley and neighboring communities now have broadband Internet access that would otherwise not be available.

Bridging the Digital Divide With Wireless

This leading edge technology is worthy of recognition due to the many challenges of the remote, rural and mountainous location populated by a tricultural peoples. The U.S. Department of Commerce measures the Digital Divide by household connectivity as a means of determining which Americans are connected to the nation's telecommunications and information infrastructure. In 1998, they found penetration levels differ, often substantially, according to income, race, geography, education level, among other demographic characteristics. The Penasco Valley has the top 4 demographic characteristics of low penetration rates with respect to computers and Internet access. The Penasco Project and La Plaza provides for the entire Penasco community broadband T1 Internet speed, free public access to both computers and the Internet, and free training classes. The Penasco Schools now offer similar educational opportunities to their students as schools in urban and metroplex areas.

The previous solution of the 56Kbps phone line for Internet access to this Village is far surpassed with the wireless system. Penasco Schools is the only school district in New Mexico that is using the existing technology of broadband fixed wireless Internet access. The telecom has no plans to lay fiber now or in the future and without the new wireless system, the schools, enterprise zone offices, and private citizens would continue to be left behind on the information highway. The technology surpasses current solutions as it is less expensive, easier to install, faster and more efficient, takes one day's time of installation, and accessible as a solution.

The application of wireless technology is making a huge contribution to this low-income, geographically challenged community. The school district has in place a state-of-the-art Internet access wireless system for educational purposes. La Plaza provides a Community Outreach Trainer, 15 hours weekly, and has an agreement with Penasco Schools to use the High School computer lab as a public access site. The students use the site to complete homework and research paper assignments. During the school year, there are 300 monthly visits in the site; during the summer, there are 350 monthly visits. A community college, 28 miles south of Penasco, offers distance education courses for the Penasco teachers and these teachers often visit the public access site to complete assignments. La Plaza received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to train northern NM teachers how to integrate the Internet into their class activities. Sixteen of the Penasco teachers were trained and became trainers for the other classroom teachers.

Community members use the site to access email and information on the WWW. Also, La Plaza received a funding from a local foundation to develop a training model for at-risk youth in web design. Six Penasco students are involved in this project. They use the digital equipment, located at the La Jicarita Enterprise office and purchased by La Plaza, to complete their assignments in web development. La Plaza plans to integrate the web development classes in the high school, for not only at-risk youth, but also other interested youth in the Penasco area.

The project contribution is a wired community in a remote, rural, and mountainous area. The future educational and professional contribution is unknown, but we do know without the wireless application this village would remain forever in the Digital Divide "have-nots" of computer and Internet access.

La Plaza reports project results to the La Plaza Board of Directors, Penasco School Board, and the funding sources of the special projects; i.e.; number of dialin users for email accounts, number of students enrolled in Penasco schools, number of visits in the Penasco public access site, and the positive outcomes of the special projects available through this wireless system. To date, no one has considered this project to be problematic.

This project can be replicated in any community, whether remote, rural or mountainous. La Plaza has installed wireless systems to the Town of Taos municipal offices, the county hospital, private businesses, and has a pending project for the Taos Pueblo. The model is based on the geographical challenges and the lack of telecom infrastructure in the area. Any community that is willing to develop partnerships and collaborate with need, engineering design, finances, and solution can replicate this project. A PowerPoint presentation of the project is available online.

Judith Pepper is Executive Director of the La Plaza Telecommunity, in Taos, New Mexico.

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