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DIY wireless backbone shaping up on Cape Cod

A nonprofit group of wireless pilgrims is venturing into virgin territory to create a regional wireless backhaul net to bring broadband capacity to Cape Cod, Mass., where the original Pilgrims first set foot nearly 400 years earlier. Just a year after its formation with US$300,000 from a group of Cape Cod colleges, communities and development agencies, the nonprofit OpenCape Corp. is installing the first group of Motorola point-to-point radios, which will eventually form a wireless backbone along the spine of high ground that reaches along the entire arm-shaped Cape, as well as the nearby islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

At the very tip of the Cape is Provincetown, the site of the first landfall of the Pilgrims, on Nov. 21, 1620. A few weeks later, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay to land at Plymouth, a more sheltered site for the first permanent settlement.

The first stage of the project is a pilot network targeted at 100+Mbps, from Cape Cod Community College, through radios mounted on a couple of water towers as well as a university, the famed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and a municipal electric utility on the mainland. The first link being built is the most technically demanding one: a 20-mile “shot” over water. These initial links will be used to test performance and reliability.

OpenCape’s preliminary models indicate that the net will sustain 250Mbps with 99.999 percent reliability, says Dan Gallagher, chairman of the nonprofit. Gallagher outlined the project at this week’s MuniWireless07 New England, a conference to promote municipal and regional broadband wireless networks.

OpenCape chose the Motorola PTP 600 Series point-to-point wireless Ethernet bridges, in both the 5.4 and 5.8GHz unlicensed bands. Gallagher says the net will consider embracing licensed spectrum to make the wireless links more secure in the future, relying in part on spectrum donated by colleges and universities in the area.

Motorola says the 600 Series radios deliver 300Mbps, but OpenCape calculates that a variety of factors will reduced the actual throughput.

But it will still be more than enough to justify a high-tech reprise of the original Thanksgiving Day for Cape Cod businesses and residents. Gallagher’s day job is executive director, information technology at Cape Cod Community College, in West Barnstable. When he took over that job 18 months ago, his first priority was to boost the school’s bandwidth capacity, which consisted of three leased T-1 lines.

But he quickly found there were few options for expanding bandwidth anywhere on Cape Cod, which has a small year-round population that soars each summer with swarms of vacationers. Carriers don’t see the population density that makes it worthwhile to install broadband, Gallagher says. The retired Navy officer calls the Cape the “North Korea of broadband” — impoverished compared with neighbors Providence, R.I. and Boston.

Gallagher wasn’t the only one dissatisfied enough to take action. The Cape Cod Technology Council, another area nonprofit, was struggling with the same issue. And it was launching in the town of Orleans the Unwired Village project, designed as a simple public-access wireless net that could be quickly deployed by municipalities.

Preliminary talks by the college and the council quickly concluded that if the Cape wanted bandwidth, “we had to build it ourselves,” Gallagher said. Participants also concluded that it should be a transport or backhaul network only, which could then be opened to others, including wireless service providers offering specific applications to specific locations. Unwired Village, for example, would become just one “access” client making use of the OpenCape backbone to reach the Internet.

A year ago this month, 100 invitees met to get the project under way. They formed a steering committee and fine-tuned the mission: OpenCape would be a regional transport communications net for education, research and economic development, and for emergency communications services in event of a hurricane or other disaster. The same backbone would offer a commercial net for businesses and providers and a separate public network for public-access and municipal services. The backbone would also link to all public shelters in the Cape area.

Currently, OpenCape estimates the commercial transport net will be about $2 million to build, the public net about $3 million. The group will seek grants and funding from an array of federal and state agencies. On the Cape, every school district, town, and other municipal agencies with a stake in higher bandwidth was asked to write a letter backing the project and pledging concrete actions, such as making water towers or other municipal structures available for radios and antennas.

Initial funding came from the Cape Cod Economic Development Council, which contributed $50,000, with $30,000 each from Cape Cod Community College, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and UMASS Dartmouth. Massachusetts Technology Council contributed $150,000.

Gallagher says that OpenCape expects that the commercial side of the net will generate enough revenue to pay for the operational costs of both nets, and in effect subsidize granting free access to Cape libraries and schools.

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