Groups plan super Wi-Fi network in rural college towns

The new program targets areas with few broadband options

University towns in rural areas will get more super Wi-Fi broadband service under a new effort announced Tuesday by a consortium of higher education associations, public interest groups and tech companies.

The new partnership, called AIR.U, will tap into underused television spectrum to deliver wireless broadband to rural universities and surrounding communities. The group will use the so-called television white spaces, abundant in rural areas, to expand coverage and capacity in communities with below average broadband services, organizers said.

"Rural spectrum can be used in all kinds of new and exciting ways," said Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U, a partner in the new project and a group focused on bringing faster broadband to U.S. universities.

Policymakers in Washington, D.C., have largely focused in recent years on opening up spectrum in urban areas, but rural areas shouldn't be left out, he said during a press briefing.

The new effort comes after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved the use of the spectrum white spaces for unlicensed broadband use. After a multiyear fight over potential interference, the FCC in late 2011, approved the first database of unlicensed wireless spectrum.

AIR.U -- AIR standing for advanced Internet regions -- plans to launch super Wi-Fi pilot programs in about six rural university towns in the first quarter of 2013, said Robert Nichols, CEO of Declaration Networks Group, a startup working on next-generation wireless networks. The AIR.U coalition plans to roll out super Wi-Fi to additional areas following the pilot projects.

Many rural university towns have several unused TV channels that could be used for wireless broadband, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New American Foundation's Open Technology Institute. In some areas, 70 percent of the TV spectrum is unused, he said.

The area surrounding University of Maine, for example, has 156MHz of "the very best spectrum" available, he said. White spaces spectrum allows wireless signals to travel farther and to penetrate deeper into buildings than traditional Wi-Fi.

"We believe these pilot networks will demonstrate a very cost-effective way to upgrade university and community connectivity," Calabrese said.

AIR.U's founding higher education organizations, representing more than 500 schools, include the United Negro College Fund and the New England Board of Higher Education. Founding partners also include Microsoft and Google.

The project's founding members will fund the original pilot projects. There is significant interest from white spaces equipment vendors in donating some equipment to the project, Calabrese said.

Super Wi-Fi will help the economies of rural areas, said Louis Segesvary, director of public affairs, at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a member of AIR.U focused on economic development in the Appalachian region.

"In this global economy and this shrinking world, broadband is essential to economic development," Segesvary said. "It's essential to education, it's essential to business, it's essential to trade, all forms of commerce, whether local or global."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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