White Space Odyssey: Bringing Big Bandwidth to College Communities

By Bob Nichols

In the past two decades, increases in computing power and the ability to retrieve and store data, combined with the mobile and data communications revolution, have altered how we exchange information. These factors have also stimulated growth throughout the economy. However, in many rural areas of the country, the information superhighway lacks an on-ramp for people who are looking for educational and professional advancement, leaving these rural communities frustrated by a situation that puts their residents at a significant disadvantage.

The AIR.U (Advanced Internet Regions) consortium aims to develop a roadmap for next-generation wireless networks by leveraging unused TV channels known as “white space” technology (sometimes referred to as Super Wi-Fi) to provide an upgrade of available broadband networks at two- and four-year postsecondary institutions and their surrounding communities. “We believe this partnership between rural college communities and white spaces networks is the beginning of beautiful friendship, catalyzing more extensive deployments, and accelerating economic and educational development throughout the United States,” said Blair Levin executive director of Gig.U.

With the announcement of the Quick Start Network Program last month, the AIR.U initiative, co-founded by NEBHE, took a major step forward in delivering on its mission to accelerate wireless networks in underserved areas. Quick Start establishes a nationwide collaborative to evaluate, design and deploy high-capacity broadband networks, including a campus and community assessment to identify network expansion approaches that establish sustainable models which will significantly increase the coverage and capacity of high-speed wireless connectivity.

The Quick Start Network Program is offered exclusively to AIR.U higher ed institutions, including most New England colleges and universities, and comes on the heels of a successful pilot on the campus of West Virginia University (WVU).

At WVU, students and faculty are accessing the internet through a white space network deployed on the WVU Public Rapid Transit System that transports 15,000 passengers. The network is managed by AIR.U co-founder, Declaration Networks, using white space equipment developed by Adaptrum Inc., and is integrated with Google’s Spectrum Database that is used to identify white space channel availability. “The collaboration shows how dynamic spectrum sharing can help deliver broadband coverage and capacity to more rural areas,” wrote Alan Norman, principal at Google Access. “Not only does the AIR.U deployment improve wireless connectivity for the PRT System, it also demonstrates the real potential of innovative new technologies to deliver broadband coverage and capacity to rural areas and small towns, to drive economic development and quality of life, and to compete with the rest of the world in the knowledge economy,” said WVU Chief Information Officer John Campbell.

The AIR.U initiative is a consortium of education associations, public interest groups and high-tech companies organized to establish high-capacity white-space networks supporting wireless broadband applications in underserved campuses and their surrounding communities. The founding higher ed organizations collectively represent more than 500 colleges and universities nationwide, and include the United Negro College Fund, NEBHE, the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, and Gig.U, a consortium of 37 major universities committed to accelerating world-leading broadband connectivity and services. Other founding partners include: Google, Microsoft, New America Foundation, Declaration Networks and the Appalachian Regional Commission

“The Quick Start Network Program is the next phase of the development of AIR.U,” said Levin. “The Gig.U is proud to be a part of this important step to create sustainable broadband capabilities so that rural universities and colleges will have an opportunity to compete in the bandwidth dependent higher education market, and their students will have access to the kinds of offerings that will help them compete in the global economy.”

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation and AIR.U co-founder, added “The Quick Start Network Program responds to the need at many colleges to quickly and easily close gaps in campus broadband connectivity.” AIR.U establishes a user-group forum for higher-ed communities to further develop white-space technology, establish best practices, identify applications and share approaches for community expansion activities. The program includes:

  • Community survey & needs assessment
  • White space base station & three Wi-Fi hotspots
  • Design, installation & monitoring support
  • White-space educational application & technical documentation
  • Economic analysis & sustainability assessment
  • AIR.U user-group membership

The Quick Start program establishes next-generation networks that are technically superior to existing wireless solutions, as well as designed to complement the existing telecom infrastructure and community resources. By incorporating powerful white space technologies into existing and future broadband infrastructure, AIR.U communities can leverage the extended coverage areas to drive deeper into neighborhoods to provide affordable, scalable broadband access to end-users and create a sustainable ecosystem of broadband connectivity that is aligned with community needs well into the future. For many rural communities, this is the broadband on-ramp they have been waiting for that will allow their communities to thrive in the digital age.

Bob Nichols is CEO of Declaration Networks Group and co-founder of AIR.U. 


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