A new partnership plans to bring wireless broadband to rural college communities over the unused spectrum between licensed television stations that are known as “white spaces”. It's called AIR.U, short for Advanced Internet Regions.
“University communities will be able to significantly expand the coverage and capacity of high speed wireless communities, both on- and off-campus,” said Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation, which is helping to lead the effort.
The plan grew out of an effort led by former FCC official Blair Levin to bring super high-speed broadband to research universities. Levin’s project, called Gig.U, had attracted the interest of rural colleges that didn’t qualify to join.
Rural communities are seen as ideal for the use of white spaces for wireless broadband Internet connectivity, often called Super Wi-Fi, because they tend to have fewer licensed TV stations, and therefore more vacant spectrum in the white spaces. Further, the low frequency range of Super Wi-Fi means that a single base station can cover a radius of about 6 miles with high-speed broadband, according to Apurva Mody, Chair of the White Space Alliance.
The Federal Communications Commission authorized the use of unlicensed white space spectrum for broadband services and other applications, back in September 2010, but services have been slow to develop, in part because the lag in designing and building network equipment designed to operate over this spectrum. Calabrese said the AIR.U effort and others like it would “a spur to the equipment market,” bringing more hardware options and lower prices.
AIR.U hopes to have the first pilot networks up and running in the first quarter of 2013, said Bob Nichols of Declaration Networks Group, a new company created to manage Super Wi-Fi networks. The funding is coming from the members, which include Google, Microsoft, the Appalachian Regional Commission and several higher education consortia including the United Negro College Fund, the New England Board of Higher Education and others.
AIR.U doesn’t intend to seek government grants or loans, according to Calabrese. The pilot program is on a tight budget, and they are hoping to have some of the network equipment donated. “The goal is to show how this is self-sustainable in the marketplace,” said Calabrese, “otherwise we won’t have this being replicated in all the states.”