Recycled spectrum being used to transmit broadband at WVU, for free

Oct 2, 2013

Over the summer West Virginia University got a new system of transmitting internet wirelessly up and running. AIR.U, named after the Advanced Internet Regions consortium, is the name of the system that is using vacated television spectrums to broadcast the internet to students and the public.

John Campbell, associate provost and chief information officer at WVU explains that a couple of years ago the Federal Communications Commission made the decision to move to high definition broadcasting.

“So they vacated the old traditional spectrum that television was delivered. So you might recall a number of years ago people were getting converter boxes that would allow them to receive the new signals and allow them to see television.”

Campbell explains that the vacated whitespace then became available for other technologies including mechanisms that use it to broadcast broadband.

“The technology itself essentially piggybacks on the old television signal and can distribute wifi for up to about 5 miles. And so that makes a huge difference in a place like West Virginia where you don’t have broadband access in every location. You don’t have to go very far beyond Morgantown to all of sudden find that your only option for broadband is satellite. And that can often be very expensive or not enough bandwidth to meet the need of some of the current applications.”

Campbell says the technology broadcasting broadband via segments of whitespace enables typical internet speeds, just over greater distances, currently, about 5 miles.

“The way the technology works is on top of a building or on top of a tower there’s a piece of equipment that essentially converts the internet into the TV spectrum. And it will connect to another location, and today it’s another piece of equipment that will convert that signal back to your traditional internet bandwidth.”

Right now the receivers are atop each of WVU’s Public Rapid Transit stations, a 73-car tram system that transports more than 15,000 riders daily between WVU’s three campuses and other parts of Morgantown. Campbell says students and the public can already access the WIFI within the stations and that early this month they’ll be receiving equipment to extend that service to the tram cars as well, making free broadband part of the

PRT experience.

“And then we’ve been working with some people with the city about testing wireless access, so we’re looking at providing wireless access to one of the local parks where students have the tendency to hang out as well as a couple of city vehicles where they need connectivity for different reasons.”

Campbell says it’s early to speculate where and how far they’ll be able to push the new technology, but there have been discussions about broadcasting WIFI access in Morgantown’s downtown business district as well as to areas in the city of Keyser through Potomac State University. He says there have also been discussions with extension services to explore if this technology might be a viable avenue to deliver content to more remote homes throughout the state.

While WVU is the first university in the U.S. to use vacant broadcast TV channels to provide the campus and nearby areas with wireless broadband Internet services, Campbell says there are also pilot projects in a few towns and municipalities on the east coast. He says equipment is the limiting factor.

“Until the manufacturers start moving [equipment] from limited production to normal production, I think it will be fairly slow, but it’s gaining some speed. There’re a lot of rural areas in the US just dying for broadband and so this opens up a whole new set of possibilities.”

Campbell says, it’s a piece of the puzzle to provide internet to rural areas. As a land-grant university and the state’s flagship school, he says, WVU is going to continue to explore ways to serve the public and move the state forward in providing basic needs through new technology.