Last week, the not-for-profit National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), which represents about 1,400 rural electric and telephone companies across 48 states, put a stake in the ground to get fixed and mobile broadband Internet access to underserved communities across the nation, which could benefit public-safety entities in such areas.

The NRTC completed a distribution agreement with rural WiMAX operator DigitalBridge Communications and said that it also made a "significant," though undisclosed, investment in DigitalBridge. The move now positions NRTC companies to be "stimulus ready" as they get in line to access some of the $7.2 billion in rural broadband funds expected to be doled out by the federal government to bridge the digital divide.

The agreement between NRTC and DigitalBridge comes just weeks after NRTC filed comments with the FCC saying that it is developing a plan to enable its members to offer universal access to broadband throughout rural areas by using a combination of WiMAX and satellite.

Bob Phillips, NRTC president and CEO, said the investment in DigitalBridge is similar to the initiative the group made with DirecTV to get satellite television service into rural America.

"It was an NRTC investment that delivered DirecTV satellite television service to rural America in places where there was no cable or other alternative to 'rabbit-ears' on top of the TV or an antenna on the roof. It was NRTC that provided the urgently-needed funding to get the WildBlue satellite Internet service off the ground." Phillips said in a statement.

Phillips declared that broadband is now a utility — like electricity and phone service.

"WiMAX can also provide a solution for electric cooperative members who are implementing smart-grid technologies that rely on enhanced communications capabilities," he said.

I can think of three swathes of spectrum that might be utilized: 3.65 GHz, 2.5 GHz and 700 MHz — though 2.3 GHz airwaves also might be in play — and DigitalBridge's vendor, Alvarion, has declared it will deliver WiMAX to any spectrum band).

The 3.65 GHz band is expected to be the most popular for U.S. WiMAX deployments as the licenses are practically free and are protected from interference. Entities must apply for the license with the FCC and pay a nominal fee. Once the license is granted, that licensee must register each site. While the license is non-exclusive, should another entity have a similar license, it must demonstrate that the license doesn't interfere with the first licensee.

Much of the 2.5 GHz spectrum is owned either by Clearwire or by entities such as schools that are allowed to sell off or lease their spectrum. Other smaller entities, such as CenturyTel, have purchased 700 MHz spectrum at auction to bring broadband to rural areas. Moreover, a group in rural Georgia purchased 700 MHz licenses covering 10 counties (see "Group takes broadband communications future into its own hands"). It plans to team up with public safety to build out a network that will provide both commercial and public-safety access.

Though it is a small company, DigitalBridge has made some impressive strides with WiMAX, unwiring smaller communities such as Jackson Hole, Wyo., with standardized mobile WiMAX. During a recent event at last month's Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) trade show, DigitalBridge CEO Kelly Dunne said the operator had rolled out mobile WiMAX in three rural areas and had achieved 20% penetration in less than 18 months. The company also is EBITDA positive — without government funding. "Imagine what we could do with government funding," he said.

With those metrics in mind, it appears to me that this isn't just another ideological notion to bring broadband to the have-nots. Both NTRC and DigitalBridge have the track records to make it happen. And public safety in those areas will be able to come along for the ride.

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