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St. Cloud is going wireless
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For Shawn Brannan of Farmers Insurance Agency in St. Cloud, a wireless Internet connection is an essential work tool. When he meets customers he can look up quotes or do research on a broadband connection, right at their kitchen table. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
When Clearwire started wireless Internet service in St. Cloud, the company jumped into a competive market. There were already two wireless Internet providers in place and two cable companies in town that offered fast connections. Technology experts expect a similar scene across the country in the next few years as the number of Internet providers, especially wireless ones, explodes.

St. Cloud, Minn. — Officials at Clearwire concentrate on a couple of key selling points: their Internet service is portable and easy to set up.

To get started, a consumer needs an antenna modem from Clearwire; it's about the size of a small notebook. The customer pays a monthly fee, anywhere from $30 to $40. And as long as they're in the St. Cloud metro area, and have an electrical outlet, they're ready to surf the Internet.

It's the type of system that works well for Shawn Brannan, a financial services advisor for Farmers Insurance Agency in St. Cloud. Brannan tested the system before it was released. He takes his new portable antenna and laptop to a customer's house, and he's got everything he needs.

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Image Bruce Sanders

"In the case of a family that wants to move home and auto insurance, we're able to run an accurate quote online, right there at the kitchen table. That's great, that cuts down on a second visit or a need for them to come to my office," Brannan says.

Wireless Internet has its advantages for customers like Brannan, but it will be a challenge for Clearwire to drag other Internet users away from their dedicated broadband home connections.

Cable companies Astound and Charter both provide speedy broadband connections in St. Cloud. And although Charter doesn't provide wireless Internet service anywhere in the country, company spokesman Dave Mack says they're used to competition from other Internet providers.

"Charter has been competing in the marketplace for high speed Internet in nearly all of our product lines for some time. I'm not going to say that we welcome the competition but we feel we are able to compete," Mack says.

Clearwire is in direct competition with the other wireless providers in St. Cloud. One of them, CitEscape, just boosted its signal. The company has about 70 customers and serves a slightly smaller area than Clearwire. But company president Jason O'Brien says CitEscape's signal will soon begin an expansion south toward the Twin Cities.

"We plan on covering the entire I-94 corridor from Avon through Maple Grove, even Plymouth. That entire area is extremely underserved right now. Because of the rate of growth through that corridor it makes it an obvious choice for us," O'Brien says.

Technology experts expect an explosion of wireless Internet providers in the next few years across the country. Robert Hoskins, who publishes a magazine called Wireless Broadband Exchange, compares it to the rise of cell phones.

"A long time ago a lot of communities didn't have cell phone coverage, and now almost every city in American has some kind of wireless cell phone coverage. I think wireless data is right behind them," Hoskins says.

Internet experts say the real action in the world of wireless will start in 2006 when a new technology called Wi-Max is expected to be released. It should allow wireless internet companies to broadcast to their customers over a much wider area and with much faster connections.

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