Bringing ultra-fast broadband to the boonies

Move over, Austin. You are about to be passed on the information superhighway.

Smithville and La Grange residents will have access to ultra-fast broadband Internet service — at 1 gigabit per second — months before Google Fiber and AT&T initiate the same service in Austin.

“We got tired of hearing all the gigabit talk in Austin,” said J.W. Breeden, CEO and founder of LiveAir Networks that focuses on bringing broadband to rural areas east of Austin. “We just said, ‘We’re going to do our own.’”

Breeden said LiveAir will go live with the service this month, offering the fastest speed for $75 per month. The company also will offer slower speeds — 50 megabits per second — for $35 per month.

Google made national news in April when it announced it was bringing Google Fiber to Austin. It would be the third major city — after Kansas City and Provo, Utah — to have Google’s fastest broadband service.

Google Fiber is expected to be operational in Austin by mid-year 2014.

AT&T quickly joined the local gigabit race, saying it will offer 300-megabit service this month in four Austin neighborhoods: French Place and Mueller in East Austin, Zilker and Onion Creek in South Austin. AT&T customers in those neighborhoods can move up to the 1 gigabit service by mid-year 2014.

Thanks to Google Fiber and AT&T, Austin is leading the state towards a 1 gigabit future — but LiveAir is alone in bringing it to a rural area.

“To be able to offer 1 gigabit service in any area, let alone a rural community, is a big deal,” said Don Shirley, executive director of Connected Texas, a nonprofit that works with state government in encouraging the spread of broadband.

A recent survey by Connected Texas showed only about 30 percent of Texas households have access to 100 megabits per second — about one-tenth the gigabit level.

Rural Texas is far behind in the broadband race. While almost 90 percent of urban Texans have access to broadband speeds of at least 10 megabits per second — the minimum for streaming video — 96 percent of rural Texas households can only access broadband at the slower speed of 768 kilobits per second for downloads.

The Connected Texas survey did not include satellite or mobile wireless service.

“The technology has advanced to where providers can offer faster broadband to our rural areas and we’re partnering with them to make it happen,” Shirely said. “These investments help drive the economy and will no doubt benefit our state.”

The Smithville-La Grange area is benefiting because Breeden is a Smithville native who wants to build his company in his hometown of Smithville.

Breeden, 27, has always been precocious.

As a child fascinated by technology in preschool, Breeden later earned his first $50 hooking up a family friend’s computer when he was 7; he had his first business customer in the seventh grade; and he wrote his company’s award-winning business plan in high school.

He launched LiveAir Networks in 2004, juggling his entrepreneurial dreams with college.

Breeden ran the company from his childhood bedroom, maintained the company’s servers in an air-conditioned attic and would meet his banker — his mother — at the kitchen table.

“We’re no longer at the kitchen table,” Breeden said.

Today, LiveAir Networks is housed in a 4,000 square-foot office and warehouse in Smithville. It has nine staffers.

Over the past three years, the company has grown to 500 customers from 300, including several businesses.

The company remains a family affair.

Breeden’s wife, Amanda, is the operations manager and his sister, Valerie, is the accounting and financial manager.

Breeden used the home of several relatives to test the fast service the past few weeks.

He said LiveAir is able to offer the fast broadband service because it has a long-term lease on fiber that is the backbone of the company’s network.

“Our rural communities are getting bypassed at their gain for economic development and talent recruitment,” Breeden said. “We hope we are kick-starting a new chapter in these areas’ economic development.”

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