Air U: Transforming TV White Spaces into Internet Connectivity

by Timothy P. Williams for Acuta.org

WVU is partnering to bring high-speed Internet to underserved communities

When it comes to high-speed Internet access, West Virginia is underserved. In too many rural areas of the state, the information superhighway lacks an on- ramp for people who are looking for edu- cational and professional advancement but who are frustrated by a situation that puts rural residents at a disadvantage.

West Virginia University (WVU) is working to change that by bringing much- needed connectivity to its campus and the surrounding area.

As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said: “Broadband service expands educational, medical, and health services for rural residents. Expanded broadband service also is important be- cause it supports employment opportuni- ties and makes income growth possible in rural areas.”

WVU has partnered with AIR.U, the Advanced Internet Regions consortium, to transform TV “white spaces” into Internet connectivity. WVU is the first university in the United States to use vacant broadcast TV channels to pro- vide the campus and nearby areas with wireless broadband Internet services.

white_space_network_design

In 2010, the FCC began allowing devices to operate in the unused por- tions of the TV broadcast bands, known as white spaces or Super Wi-Fi frequen- cies. These frequencies, left empty when television stations moved to digital broadcasting, are particularly abundant in rural areas. This is important because these are the areas where traditional telecom infrastructure faces its biggest challenge in delivering broadband services.

According to Bob Nichols, AIR.U co-founder and CEO of Declaration Networks Group, “Super Wi-Fi presents a lower-cost, scalable approach to deliver high-capacity wireless networks, and DNG is leading the way for a new broadband alternative to provide sustain- able models that can be replicated and extended to towns and cities nationwide.”

Who Will Benefit?

The initial phase of the white space network will provide free public Wi-Fi access for students and faculty at WVU’s Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system platforms. Through the PRT system, more than 15,000 riders travel the WVU campus each day in 73 computer-guided, electric-powered vehicles.

Students and faculty will also be able to access the Internet in the PRT vehicles themselves. In the future, this connec- tivity will help the university develop applications to communicate with PRT riders through on-board video screens and other technology.

The PRT system is a useful target environment for testing an effective way to design, deploy, and operate a Super Wi-Fi network. Later phases of the project will extend coverage to more of the campus and areas outside Morgantown.

“Not only does the AIR.U deploy- ment improve wireless connectivity for the PRT System, it also demon- strates the real potential of innova- tive 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 CIO John Campbell.

WVU is a land-grant university, and improving the lives of state citizens is at the heart of its mission. In time, Super Wi-Fi may offer a solution for the many West Virginia communities that still lack broadband access—and the economic development and quality of life benefits that broadband provides.

Public Wi-Fi Access

The Demonstration Network will provide Wi-Fi access to the Internet for students and faculty from five PRT stations that have installed Remote White Space CPE as they wait for the arrival of the PRT cars. Areas immediately surrounding

the platforms could also share that con- nectivity, so the initial demonstration site may ideally be a platform in an area where students congregate for other purposes in addition to the PRT.

The WVU community will also have access via Wi-Fi to the Internet while rid- ing PRT cars that have installed Remote White Space CPE. Individual cars with Wi-Fi capability can provide students and faculty with Internet access on their commute through campus, as well as support future vertical applications for the PRT system and monitoring func- tions, such as alerts, video monitoring, public announcements, on-board video screens, and more.

System Design

The system design (Figure 1) includes end-to-end system components for the initial application demonstration network. The actual radio coverage takes advantage of the rooftop of the Engineer- ing Building (Figure 2), which is a high point on the WVU campus. With two base stations with directional antennas pointing to different PRT platforms, the PRT tracks can be covered from the rooftop, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1. Aerial view of the Engineering Building. Arrows illustrate base antennas pointing to different PRT platforms.

Figure 1. Aerial view of the Engineering Building. Arrows illustrate base antennas pointing to different PRT platforms.

Behind the Scenes

The network deployment is managed by AIR.U co-founder, Declaration Networks Group LLC, and represents a collabora- tion between AIR.U and the WVU Board of Governors; the West Virginia Network for Telecomputing, which provides the fiber-optic Internet backhaul for the network; and Adaptrum Inc., a California startup providing white-space equipment designed to operate on vacant TV chan- nels. AIR.U is affiliated with the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. Microsoft and Google both provided early support for AIR.U’s overall effort to spur innovation to upgrade the broadband available to underserved campuses and their sur- rounding communities.

The AIR.U consortium comprises organizations that represent over 500 colleges and universities nationwide, including the United Negro College Fund, the New England Board of Higher Education, the Corporation for Educa- tion Network Initiatives in California, the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, and Gig.U, a consor- tium of 37 major universities. “We are delighted that AIR.U was born out of the Gig.U effort,” said Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U and former executive director of the National Broadband Plan. “The communities that are home to our

research universities and colleges across the country need next-generation speeds to compete in the global economy, and we firmly believe this effort can be a model for other communities.” Found- ing partners of AIR.U include Microsoft, Google, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and Declaration Networks Group, LLC (a new firm established to plan, deploy, and operate Super Wi-Fi networks).

Conclusion

“Innovative deployment of TV white spaces presents an exciting opportunity for underserved rural and low-income urban communities across the country,” says FCC acting chair Mignon Clyburn. “I commend AIR.U and West Virginia University on launching a unique pilot program that provides campuswide Wi-Fi services using TV white space devices. This pilot will not only demon- strate how TV white-space technologies can help bridge the digital divide, but also could offer valuable insights into how best to structure future deployments.”

Timothy P. Williams is director of tele- communications and network operations at West Virginia University. Reach him at timothy.williams@mail.wvu.edu. Original PDF article at Acuta.org

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