“It’s starting to become a necessity for conducting business,” says Darcy Ferguson, director of finance and administration for the board. But apart from a couple of towns of more than 1,000 people, where digital subscriber line (DSL) service is available, the carriers are probably not going to provide broadband, Ferguson adds.

So, the Special Areas Board has awarded a contract to Hanna, Alta.-based Netago Wireless to set up a broadband network using WiMAX gear from Nortel Networks Corp.

Netago president Terry Duchcherer says his company approached the Special Areas Board about two years ago with its vision of wireless broadband. The board liked the idea, but the project had to wait for the Alberta SuperNet – which will serve as a backbone for the service – to be built out. And, Ferguson says, “we really had our hearts set on the WiMAX standard,” so the completion of the standard was another important milestone.

The standard was important, Ferguson says, because it opens up the possibility of buying equipment from multiple suppliers and competition will eventually drive prices down. Given the large area involved – the Special Areas Board covers 2.1 million hectares – being able to use different suppliers for service and repairs could also be a plus.

Ferguson says the Special Areas Board had looked at satellite access as an alternative to wireless, but had not found anything satisfactory. Bruce Gustafson, director of WiMAX marketing at Nortel in Richardson, Tex., says the delay caused by the distance signals must travel from the surface to a satellite and back causes problems, especially with voice over IP.

The request for proposal went out last June, Ferguson says. Nortel was chosen to supply equipment in the 3.5-Gigahertz band, and the first gear was installed in December. Currently, Netago is running a trial with three transmission towers. Covering the whole area will take between 10 and 15 towers, Ferguson says, and the plan is to have service available across the region by this summer.

Duchcherer says Netago has found installing the WiMAX equipment “no more complicated than any network we’ve worked on.” Subscriber units are actually easier to set up than competing access technologies, he says. So far the trial has run smoothly – Duchcherer says snow and fog have not interfered with service.

The network will provide service at 1.5 to three megabits per second to both residential and business customers. Ferguson says there is already strong interest.

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