The latest example was on Monday in Missoula, Mont., a town of 50,000, where two local Internet providers began offering service from a wireless Internet network capable of speeds 30 times that of a dial-up modem. Similar kinds of wireless networks will become available in Maui, Hawaii, and areas of Vancouver, British Columbia, in the next few weeks.
Wireless service provider Walker Wireless has launched a similar network in New Zealand and just got a $20 million cash infusion and a partnership with Vodafone, the largest cell phone provider in the world.
Wireless is one proposed answer to the problem of bringing Internet access to rugged areas where it costs too much to lay in fiber-optic cable or other traditional forms of Internet access. Wireless is a less expensive alternative, but it has been slow to take hold because of such technological hurdles as signal strength and has also faced concerns over the reliability of the service.
Wireless broadband networks such as the one launched Monday in Montana have the backing of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who heads the Senate's telecommunications committee. He is among those championing wireless technologies to solve the "last mile problem" for rural areas.
"It fits right into this agenda," Burns spokesman Eric Bovim said. The senator believes the same kinds of technologies will be used to outfit areas of the Dakotas and Wyoming soon with Internet access, he said.
The network launched in Missoula on Monday uses a cellular technology called W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access). Cell phone calls travel over commercially available spectrum. The equipment is provided by San Bruno, Calif.-based IPWireless.
Usually, W-CDMA signals travel all over, bouncing off trees or buildings. The signals themselves can get so misdirected they actually interfere with each other as they find their way to a handset or cellular base station's antenna, said Jon Hambidge, senior director of marketing for IPWireless.
IPWireless uses a proprietary way of recombining the signals to create the network's speed, he said.
Analysts say the small markets may be just what this young, still developing technology needs in order to work out its wrinkles and attract bigger carriers like Sprint PCS, which did trials on similar technology several years ago but abandoned the effort, said Warren Wilson, practice director for analysts Summit Strategies.
"It's been really kind of the Holy Grail of wireless computing," he said.