Shea Homes is using an enhanced cellular infrastructure from Verizon and Sprint to solve a perennial problem for builders: establishing data communications in far-flung areas.

Ray Hayes, Shea's chief technology officer, says the builder now typically receives network performance of about 500- to 600 kilobits-per-second (Kbps) on about three or four shared PCs, which is about one-half the speed of a T1 line, the standard for many corporate business networks. But even these slower bandwidth speeds had been unheard of before in isolated locations with little or no infrastructure.

Shea started testing the new infrastructure about two years ago and is now using the cellular EVolution-Data Only (EV-DO) networks at about 20 projects at any given time.

“Sometimes we get up to 900 Kbps,” he says, which is close to 1 megabit-per-second, just under T1 speeds.

Shea Homes was one of the first companies to put up its own wireless towers to establish data communications in remote areas. But the towers cost several thousand dollars. The EV-DO service is roughly $60 to $80 a month per wireless card; the cards themselves are about $99; and the TopGlobal gear costs about $800.

The solution is somewhat complicated to understand. The actual wireless portion of the application is Verizon and Sprint's EV-DO network. The EV-DO technology is a cellular data network, it is not based on the Wi-Fi data networking that millions of people use at home or in a small office. The PCs themselves are hardwired into a SonicWall firewall/switch, which secures and handles data traffic for the local PCs. The firewall is connected to a TopGlobal Mobile-Bridge gateway, the device that communicates with the EV-DO network.

Hayes says wireless laptop performance over EV-DO is not acceptable, which is why Shea hardwires the PCs into the SonicWall firewall. But on the plus side, at about $600 per PC, desktops are much cheaper than wireless laptops and offer superior performance and reliability when integrated with the firewall. They are also less apt to be stolen from the jobsite, says Hayes, a major consideration for builders working in remote areas.