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First "White Space" Network Launched

The wireless network will deliver high-speed internet to rural Virginia.
October 22, 2009

Wireless technology that’s been touted as the best hope for providing high-speed Internet access to rural communities is about to get its first true test. The first “white space” wireless network will use unused portions of TV spectrum to distribute broadband access to residents of Claudville, VA.

Low-cost access: A worker checks the antenna for a new “white space” network that will cover a service area with one-fifteenth of the nodes that traditional Wi-Fi would require.

Advocates for rural broadband say that high-speed Internet access is needed to improve healthcare and education in isolated communities. Others simply don’t want their communities left behind while urban areas access ever more services over the Internet.

But bringing broadband to rural areas is easier said than done. Roger Hayden, director of the Claudville Computer Center and chairman of the Patrick County Broadband Task Force, said at a press conference Wednesday that in 2004, he called every carrier he could find, and none was willing to deliver a high-speed wired Internet service to Claudville. In the years since, local officials have been looking for another way to get better access.

Three months ago, they began planning for the construction of a “white space” network, which takes advantage of empty fragments of the TV spectrum scattered between used frequencies. This is a cheaper way to provide wireless broadband access in areas without a lot of existing infrastructure. But the FCC requires that such a network include technology that prevents it from interfering with existing broadcasts.

TV stations have traditionally broadcast over wireless frequencies that carry information longer distances. For example, the spectrum between 512 megahertz and 698 megahertz, originally allotted to analog TV channels 21 to 51, offers longer range than conventional Wi-Fi, which operates at 2.4 gigahertz. With the ongoing transition from analog to digital broadcasts, more unused TV frequencies are opening up than ever.

Until late last year, it was illegal to operate over these unused frequencies. But in November 2008, new FCC regulations opened those portions of spectrum, with the provision that deployments follow strict requirements not to interfere with existing uses.

Hayden and others got in touch with Spectrum Bridge, a company based in Lake Mary, FL, that has been developing technology for white-space networks. To build the network, fiber-optic cable had to be laid to reach one location in Claudville. Beyond that, the wireless signal over white-space frequencies travels about 1.5 miles away from the router, says Spectrum Bridge CTO Peter Stanforth. That signal strength means that the network can cover the same area with one-tenth to one-fifteenth of the nodes of traditional Wi-Fi. Another long-range wireless technology, WiMax, operates on licensed spectrum, making it more expensive to implement.

To avoid conflict with existing usage of the spectrum, Spectrum Bridge maintains a database that tracks which chunks of spectrum are being unused in which areas. Devices on Claudville’s network will contact the company’s database, reporting their location, and will be told what frequency to use to connect. Customers access the network as they would any Wi-Fi hotspot.

Stanforth said Claudville’s system currently operates by sharing a single channel, but the system could be adjusted to use multiple channels if more bandwidth is needed. Spectrum Bridge executives estimate that the network cost about $40,000 to install.

“It is our hope from this demonstration that we can prove definitively that white spaces are a good solution for last-mile broadband access,” said Congressman Rick Boucher, D-Va, chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.

Becca Gould, vice president of government affairs for Dell, which donated equipment for the effort, said at the event that using white-space networks “really extends the Internet’s backbone.” She views the technology as the lowest-cost option for providing last-mile Internet connectivity.

Paula Boyd, Microsoft’s regulatory counsel, says that a deployment like this is the only way to get access to the whole of a rural area. (Microsoft provided support for the effort but was not actually involved in building Claudville’s network.) “If you had only the wireline facility, you would not be able to connect all of Claudville,” she says, because carriers couldn’t get enough customers in a rural area to justify the cost of laying the amount of cable that would be needed. Boyd adds that the FCC still needs to finalize its policies on white spaces and that, until that’s done, no system can be certified past the experimental phase.

Claudville’s network has been installed under an 18-month experimental license from the FCC, and Spectrum Bridge will be performing tests to ensure that the network doesn’t interrupt any existing signals, as well as to test its performance generally. “It’s a great torture course for radio,” says Rick Rotondo, cofounder and chief marketing officer of Spectrum Bridge, explaining that Claudville’s tree cover and mountainous terrain will really test the capabilities of the system.

In the near future, the company plans to expand the existing deployment to reach more locations in Claudville. “We’re trying to pick a few strategic locations,” Rotondo says. “We’re trying to show how white space can be used.”

For now, Internet service through the network is free, as required by the experimental license. But Spectrum Bridge executives said that when the FCC finalizes its policies, they hope to replace the experimental system with a certified one, which would allow them to extend their license and to charge for service.

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