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    WildBlue Offers High-Speed Internet to Rural Customers

    By Noble Sprayberry

    photography by Jay Thane

    East Coast shoppers generate three-quarters of the $200,000 in annual sales by Alpacas of Montana, a business isolated in the rugged mountains outside Bozeman. The enterprise couldn't thrive, however, without satellites and the ability to tap into the Internet at speeds once unheard of in rural areas.

    "I can live out in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and still do business across the nation," owner James Budd says of his sales of alpacas, fleece, and yarn.

    He can thank the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, a national association that helps rural electric and telephone utilities obtain advanced telecommunications and information technology.

    Much like the electric co-ops formed in the 1930s to provide electricity to rural residents, the NRTC provides high- speed Internet access to those who, like Budd, choose to live away from cities. The service is offered via a company called WildBlue.

    Access to the Internet a decade ago, for most people, depended on squawky modems and dial-up Internet, the digital equivalent of fighting a fire with a garden hose.

    Dial-up proved frustratingly slow as the Internet grew with new offerings such as music downloads, video clips, and complex websites.

    Cable television providers, telephone companies, and Internet specialty companies now commonly provide some form of broadband access - Internet service many times faster than aging dial- up.

    These digital fire hoses, however, may fail to reach rural areas, or occasionally even outlying suburbs. In places where fewer than 200 people live in a square mile, mainstream broadband technologies are often too expensive to establish, says Stephanie Lovett, WildBlue's director of marketing. "It takes a lot of money just to connect a few homes, so the payoff isn't there," she says.

    People living in rural areas, though, still want the benefit of the modern Internet. "I think people are aware of what broadband brings, because they've tried it at work or at the library," she says. "They're just frustrated they can't get it."

    WildBlue has offered one alternative for two years.

    Two satellites, with another planned, hang in orbit in the southern sky, beaming Internet service to the satellite dishes of WildBlue's roughly 160,000 customers.

    Establishing WildBlue at a home costs $299 for equipment, with discounts usually available, and the company currently waives installation fees. Monthly charges range from $45 to $79, depending on the connection speed.

    Many of the rural utilities have sold some form of Internet service for more than a decade, but WildBlue offers a chance to expand the offering and to compete with technology more readily available in urban areas, NRTC spokeswoman Andrea Cumpston says.

    "We believe," Cumpston says, "people should not suffer because of their lifestyle choice to live in a rural area."