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Google, Microsoft and more than 500 colleges and universities created a new partnership with the team behind the Gig.U project, with plans to bring broadband to rural America using Super Wi-Fi.The Air.U partnership hopes to use the abandoned television airwaves to deliver Wi-Fi like networks to rural colleges. While these networks won’t be the superfast gigabit networks research institutions will get under the Gig.U project, they could play a valuable role in getting Super Wi-Fi to the mainstream.
The plan is to launch roughly six pilot projects by the first quarter of next year. The resulting networks would use the Super Wi-Fi technology to create wireless networks that serve about a 10-kilometer radius and deliver roughly 10 Mbps of capacity per channel. The network would consist of a base station or a series of base stations hooked into some kind of backhaul network. In rural areas that’s likely to be DSL or maybe microwave.
Participants on a conference call announcing the partnerships didn’t disclose a budget, but the effort is noteworthy because it could drive demand for Super Wi-Fi equipment and chips, which would help lower the cost of such gear into price ranges that make the technology accessible for other users. If adopted widely the project also stakes a claim to those airwaves, which the FCC intends to auction off to the likes of cellular carriers.
From white spaces to Super Wi-Fi
Super Wi-Fi, which was formerly called white spaces broadband, takes advantage of the spectrum given up when broadcasters moved from analog to digital signals. The idea of using those airwaves for broadband generated a lot of protest among makers and users of wireless microphones and the nearby television stations who worried that interference from broadband users would disrupt their concerts or interrupt their TV shows. Those debates are settled, but then the spectrum crunch hit.
Suddenly those airwaves looked like fair game for delivering wireless broadband and ensuring people’s iPhones worked well. Thus, Congress and the FCC are prepping some of this unlicensed spectrum (unlicensed means anyone can use it as long as they pass FCC-set interference tests) for an incentive auction to deliver more licensed broadband for carriers. This will generate revenue for the government and help assuage the carriers’ constant cry for spectrum.
But it does put the use of such airwaves for unlicensed Super Wi-Fi on questionable ground. Blair Levin, the executive director of the Gig.U project, responded to questions regarding potential outcomes if the FCC decides to auction that spectrum by claiming that carriers don’t need or want rural spectrum, so building out rural Super Wi-Fi networks is okay. Maybe he is right, although I’ve never met a carrier who didn’t want to warehouse all the spectrum it could or force more unlicensed spectrum into the licensed arena.
So what will Super Wi-Fi allow?
But, should this effort get off the ground, there are other considerations, such as the need for backhaul networks to rural America. Most of these are DSL-based, which means providers of these networks will have to pay for an expensive backhaul, but also that the backhaul network won’t have the necessary capacity to deliver top speeds. Hopefully efforts to connect rural libraries through the 2009 ARRA funds for broadband networks might help build connections, but it’s unclear right now where the connectivity to feed the wireless network will come from.
These networks can provide roughly 22 Mbps per channel (each channel is a former TV channel and has 6 MHz of spectrum) and the idea is to use as many channels as needed to offer fast service. So in Maine there are 26 channels available, while in others areas there may be less. Actual speeds will be less than the theoretical speeds set by the standard. Jim Carlson, the CEO of Carlson Wireless, a company that makes radios and consumer equipment for Super Wi-Fi networks, says he’s working on a radio slated for next year that could approach 100 Mbps over the air with a one-way throughput around 64 Mbps. That’s awesome, but does mean that rural areas will need to beef up their backhaul.
And finally there’s the economic sustainability of these networks. The technology’s range is roughly 6.5 miles, and the challenge will be getting enough people to buy a service that pays for the maintenance and construction of the base station and for the backhaul. In rural areas finding a large enough cluster of people willing to pay for white spaces broadband in a 6.5-mile radius might prove difficult, especially when one considers that the range could be diminished by water, topography and buildings.
However, much like Gig.U, which has made some promising announcements and now has to get to work building out real networks, this partnership is a good start that I hope makes it to fruition.