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Super Wi-Fi Pilot Hits Libraries Around the Country

A combination of unused TV channel spectrum and traditional Wi-Fi could create opportunities for underserved areas.

Super Wi-Fi -- Wi-Fi combined with the TV whitespace spectrum -- will be used in six library systems across the country as part of a pilot program announced by the Gigabit Libraries Network. The pilot is aimed at demonstrating the extent to which TV whitespace technology and Wi-Fi can be combined to benefit Internet users in underserved areas.

The idea for Super Wi-Fi started when broadcast television began being replaced by digital channels. More spectrum became available as channels were abandoned in different areas, and technologists saw potential in that newly vacant whitespace. By combining Wi-Fi with transmissions in the TV whitespace, Super Wi-Fi allows for longer-ranging, faster connectivity. And because TV whitespace is at lower frequencies than Wi-Fi signals, Super Wi-Fi can penetrate buildings and trees much better than traditional Wi-Fi can. A super Wi-Fi hot spot can span several miles and proponents of the technology say it’s a perfect solution for underserved areas where fiber connectivity is not possible.

Late last month, Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN) officials revealed the library systems selected to test the technology through the end of 2013: Delta County, Colo.; Pascagoula, Miss.; Skokie, Ill.; Humboldt County, Calif.; New Hampshire, and several cities in Kansas.

Don Means, GLN coordinator, said this pilot is “extremely important” for the future of the technology. In addition to testing the technology, the pilot will also serve other purposes, he said. “This is a learning project so that communities can begin to have a better understanding about what connectivity, communications infrastructure in general, whitespace do,” he said.

The role of the library is changing along with the rest of the world in response to the development of technology, he said, so it makes sense for this pilot to happen in libraries. “Libraries are ancient institutions providing information,” he said. “That hasn’t changed; it’s just the methods of it and the added services that go along with it are changing.”

These pilots are also being touted as another way to address the issue of the digital divide. Since only 35 percent of the world is connected to the Internet, Means said, libraries represent a great opportunity to reach people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to get connected. Public libraries, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are uniquely positioned to help in this respect, with two out of three adult Americans owning a library card.

The chosen communities were picked for a number of reasons, including how interesting their ideas were. Some communities, for example, pitched the idea of an e-bookmobile that would provide Super Wi-Fi access to those in the surrounding area, Means said. In addition, communities were chosen based on their level of interest, support structures, network experience, backhaul availability and unused TV channel availability.

They got a lot of response very quickly, Means said, and they had the luxury of choosing the best pilot communities available.

In New Hampshire, eight libraries are involved in the pilot, said Rouzbeh Yassini, executive director for the University of New Hampshire’s Broadband Center of Excellence (BCoE) and early developer of the cable modem and the communications standard DOCSIS. Two groupings of four libraries each will test Super Wi-Fi in the state, with additional support from the New Hampshire State Library and New Hampshire FastRoads.

Drawing a parallel between the explosion of the cable modem and TV whitespace technology, Yassini said the technology used in this pilot could bring connectivity to a lot of now underserved areas. The technology, he said, is beautifully designed and he’s very optimistic about the chances of it proliferating more widely. “But I always like to let everybody know that the product does the talking,” he said. “The spectrum from 50 MHz to 800 MHz is the perfect spectrum. There is no better spectrum than that anywhere in the world for this type of communication. The libraries are just a starting point because of the visibility but this will be used by every single underserved area.”

There are several factors they will evaluate during the pilot, Yassini said. The product will speak for itself as to how successfully it can demonstrate reliability, good data rates, ease of use and upkeep, and low cost, he said. If those things can be demonstrated at acceptable levels, then the technology will be successful. Yassini strongly feels strongly that the technology's viability will be proven through the pilot projects.

“The TV white spectrums is a perfect solution and perfect scenario for helping the industry move to the next level and moving broadband where it’s never gone,” he said.

At the end of the pilot period, the libraries can purchase the equipment used in the pilot. Vendors providing equipment for the pilots include Carlson Wireless, based in Arcata, Calif.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.