While Iberville Bank has branches in Baton Rouge, Port Allen and Prairieville, it also serves little towns like Maringouin and Pierre Part. The bank recently went wireless for its own communication needs, and it may play a role in helping bring those rural areas into the digital age.
Iberville Bank was spending between $7,000 and 8,000 a month for bandwidth over land-based T1 lines, says James LaBauve, the bank’s senior vice president and operations manager. Imaging all of the checks at each branch and transmitting those images back to the operations center was maxing out the bandwidth; those T1 lines just weren’t hacking it anymore as the number of transactions increased.
LaBauve says their new wireless network, provided by ERF Wireless of League City, Texas, allows them to transmit at 14 megabits per second, which is like 10 T1s. The bank is working on a number of different applications to take advantage of all that bandwidth, including videoconferencing for staff training sessions, digital security cameras at its branches, and replacing their landline phone systems with voice over Internet protocol communications.
He says they’re on the verge of offering “merchant capture,” in which commercial customers take digital images of checks that could be transferred electronically, eliminating the daily trip the bank.
Installing the network requires a significant initial investment but virtually no ongoing cost after that. LaBauve says it’s also more reliable. Telephone lines, whether underground or on a pole, can be lost very quickly in a hurricane, for example. But with wireless, even if you lose connectivity, you can regain it quickly, he says. If one of the 12 branches loses contact with the operations center in Addis, its communications can be rerouted through another branch.
ERF Wireless has aspirations of creating a statewide, and eventually nationwide, wireless network, and they’re working with Louisiana State Police and financial institutions like Iberville Bank to help make it happen. The wireless company plans to use the bank’s excess wireless bandwidth and infrastructure to offer wireless products and services to customers within the radius of each bank tower. The bank will get 10% of the subscriber revenue as part of the agreement, ERF says. Larry Melsheimer, president of Iberville Bank, says he is looking forward to converting his network into an income-producing venture.
“We are going to help ERF Wireless market this to our customer base and help bring our rural Louisiana communities into the 21st century,” Melsheimer says.
Rex McDonald, director of IT and communication for State Police, says his agency had been looking for grant money to update its 12-year-old radio system, which depends on T1 landlines. If a trooper in Shreveport wants to talk to one in Lake Charles, the signal has to be relayed through Baton Rouge. If one of those regional towers loses contact with Baton Rouge, everyone within range of that tower will be able to talk to each other but not to anyone outside of its range. Police wanted a second method to tie all those towers together.
“When Katrina and Rita came through, we only lost one tower, but we lost land lines to a number of towers,” McDonald says. The lines were only lost for a day at the most, but it invariably happened “right in the heat of battle.”
ERF Wireless offered to provide wireless connectivity in exchange for the right to use space on the police towers. Through the cooperative agreement, the company gets to expand its reach in Louisiana and State Police gets another way to communicate that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
ERF Wireless also agreed to provide a broadband hotspot and a security camera at each tower, McDonald says. He says the network will be able to transmit at 3 megabits per second, twice as fast as a T1 line, and ERF has promised to up that speed to 20 megabits per second during any declared state emergency. Eventually, all state agencies and all first responders will be able to tie into the system, McDonald says.
John Burns is CEO of ERF Enterprise Network Services, a subsidiary of ERF Wireless. He argues that wireless is the wave of the future as an alternative to, and extension for, DSL and cable modem services, particularly in rural areas, where it’s not worth the expense for a phone company to lay down DSL or cable lines.
Wireless advocates also say the monopole towers they typically use can withstand winds of up 155 mph, and when communication is lost from a tower, it can often be restored much faster than a T1 line.
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