Rural broadband drought puts hurt on retailer

August 27, 2007 10:36 AM EDT
The lack of broadband access in rural areas isn't just hurting individuals and small businesses. Even large retail chains, which often have stores in rural shopping centers, find that they can't get online.

Consider the plight of Trans World Entertainment, which relies mostly on DSL services to link more than 1,000 music stores - including its Coconuts and f.y.e. chains - to its back-end systems. "Unfortunately, DSL isn't available everywhere yet, even in retail areas. Right now, about 17% [of store locations] can't get broadband," says CIO Robert Hinkle, noting that availability can be limited even in the major retail zones within rural areas.

TWE stores that can't get broadband service now rely on slower frame relay connections, which Hinkle admits is a less than optimal solution. "It's just too darned expensive for the speed," he says, adding that he's looking for viable alternatives.

TWE recently brought 335 new stores online as part of an acquisition. "We probably ended up with 80 stores on frame," says director of IT operations Roy Simmons, noting that the 256 Kbps frame relay circuits cost 30% more than DSL and offer a fraction of the bandwidth he'd like each store to have. TWE downloads new music and video clips to servers located in each store that play music and video trailers to customers on demand. "It chugs along," Simmons says of the download process.

Bit rates weren't the only thing that was slow about rural broadband. Even where DSL was available, slow service times meant that it was impossible to get a broadband hookup made within TWE's 30-day window. So some stores had to start out with dial-up connections. "It took about three months before we completed the DSL or frame installations," Simmons says. Getting DSL up and running, he adds, was the "longest running piece" of the project.

This was just one of the stories that didn't make it into my column this week about the sorry state of rural broadband. For more, see ISPs to rural America: Live with dial-up).