Rural residents desperately seeking fast Internet connections are taking it upon themselves to get broadband service.
Last year, residents in Summit County, Colo., formed the Ruby Ranch Internet Cooperative (RRIC) Association, otherwise known as "the Co-op."
After 10 months of negotiations, Qwest, the main local telecommunications provider, told them it would cost too much to roll out digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable Internet access to the area.
So Summit County residents took matters into their own hands. They scrounged up cable modems, routers and other equipment -- much of which can be found on eBay -- to connect to a 12-inch-wide metal DSL access multiplexer (DSLAM), which was placed in a neighborhood horse barn.
Project leader Carl Oppedahl and some neighbors paid $5,000 for the DSLAM. The finished product serves 12 homes with DSL-based Internet access.
Oppedahl used microwave antennas to connect his nearby law office's network, which has a fast-access T1 line, to his home and the broadband box. The DSLAM was in turn wired to the Qwest box that serves as the junction of the town's telephone lines. Oppedahl and his cohorts then organized a nonprofit co-op to run their homemade service.
Oppedahl's phone has been ringing off the hook as other rural residents call to ask how they, too, can set up their own broadband service.
"The inquiries have not stopped yet," he says.
Officials from Wyoming, just to the north, will visit Summit County later this month to see if they can replicate that network in their state.
As in Colorado, Qwest and other local telephone companies maintain that it would just be too expensive to offer DSL in rural Wyoming, said Michael Stull, director of telecommunications for the Wyoming Business Council.
"There's just no interest in giving us service," Stull said. "We’re trying to fill that hole."
Qwest officials were not available for comment.
So Wyoming residents, too, likely will surf the Net looking for cheap DSL network parts to hatch together their own networks.
Oppedahl does not know of any other DSL-based broadband co-ops in the United States, but according to his Ruby Ranch co-op's Web site, there are several co-ops in Colorado, such as the Sugarloaf Internet Cooperative in Boulder (slogan: "Bandwidth to the Boonies") and the Magnolia Road Internet Cooperative in Nederland, that use 802.11b wireless access, sometimes known as Wi-Fi, to connect to the Internet.
The Ruby Ranch also links to a page that gives directions on how to set up your own neighborhood broadband network, as well as to some co-operative telephone companies that offer DSL.
These efforts come at a time when telecom companies are having a hard time getting financial backing from Wall Street to build out their networks.
The demand for broadband "exists in rural America and it's the job of all segments of the telecom sector ... to try to assess the level of that demand and to match that demand for quality service at affordable prices," said Mark Rubin, director of federal government affairs for Western Wireless.
With the current economic climate and the shakiness of the telecom sector, however, companies are not likely to start stringing more cables across prairies or mountains, especially as 802.11b technology becomes pervasive.
"I never expect to see a cable-company crew stringing wire across miles of grazing land to provide us with cable TV and the option for broadband digital services," wrote retired Sen. Malcolm Wallop, a long-time Wyoming rancher and chairman of think tank Frontiers for Freedom, in a recent editorial. "It's not going to happen."
The Magnolia Road 802.11b co-op has six five-foot antennae serving 400 potential households and connects to the Internet through a T1 line. Residents pay $50 a month for service as well as a one-time, $50 co-op membership fee.
The Community Internet Cooperative Incorporated of Carman-Miami in the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba provides low-cost DSL-based Internet access to schools and students there.
Residents launched their own locally-owned and operated ISP in July 1996 after getting a grant from the Canadian government to buy modems, routers, server, phone lines and other equipment and services.
Despite their remoteness, rural Americans want the same type of fast services city dwellers receive.
"People that live out there understand that they give up certain niceties," said Jason Wright, spokesman for the Frontiers of Freedom, which favors less government regulation in the telecom business. "They understand there's certain consequences to living life on a ranch."
"Once you take broadband and what technology can offer at high speeds," Wright added, "you can't go back."