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A Broadband Boom in the Boondocks

A massive injection of spectrum might be about to revolutionize the digital infrastructure of rural America.
February 8, 2011

For a glimpse of the wireless future, take a look at the Yurok Indian reservation, an out-of-the-way spot just south of the California-Oregon border at the mouth of the Klamath River. There, among the giant redwoods, stand three new towers built to create a new type of wireless network, known as “super Wi-Fi.”  If the U.S. Federal Communications Commission gets its way, super Wi-Fi will become a key part of rural America’s digital infrastructure.

Super Wi-Fi me: An example of a super Wi-Fi antenna.

Most people living on the Yurok’s 63,000-acre reservation lack phone service. Almost none have high-speed Internet. The new towers aim to fix both problems. Unlike regular Wi-Fi networks, which are generally limited to beaming high-speed Internet around a house, super Wi-Fi promises to blanket entire neighborhoods with high-speed access. 

A Yurok tribal spokesman says the new signals will reach even into the steep-walled valleys that play havoc with most wireless signals. The tribe plans to start testing the system this week.

The FCC is so enthused with the idea of super Wi-Fi that it took the idea nationwide last month, issuing final rules that will free any town or county to do what the Yurok have done.  On Monday, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski proposed a way to pay for much of that infrastructure that would be needed to support municipal Super Wi-Fi. He wants to convert the current system of rural phone subsidies, which now total $8 billion a year, into a more modern system that can pay for things like super Wi-Fi.

Unlike most wireless advances, super Wi-Fi’s much-improved range has little to do with better technology. Instead, the dramatic jump comes from the FCC’s decision to free up airwaves that have long been reserved exclusively for local TV broadcasts. Those TV airwaves are lower in frequency than standard cellular and Wi-Fi airwaves and thus better able to penetrate buildings and other objects. 

Concerns about interference with remaining TV signals have led some analysts to question whether super Wi-Fi is feasible in urban areas. Super Wi-Fi devices need to determine their location, then consult a central database showing the available white spaces in that area in order to avoid causing interference.

Since rural America has fewer local TV stations, it will have far more of these empty “white spaces” to fill with new wireless signals, points out Alex Besen, who runs an industry consultancy, the Besen Group. In many rural areas, super Wi-Fi will have access to well over 200 megahertz of spectrum, he estimates—more capacity than Verizon and AT&T combined. That huge injection of spectrum could revolutionize the digital infrastructure of rural America, Besen says.

Many urban Americans, by contrast, will have to make do with far less spectrum, as cities’ surviving TV channels limit the number of available white spaces. In addition, capacity in densely populated cities must be divided among more people.

The main point of deploying super Wi-Fi is its increased range—up to 50 miles or perhaps even more. Whatever the ultimate limitations of the “white spaces” prove to be, access to the new airwaves will dramatically improve America’s wireless infrastructure, says Besen. “It’s great spectrum,” he says. “We are very lucky compared to other countries to have this unlicensed spectrum available today.”

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