UNCF and Others to Employ ‘Super’ Wi-Fi Networks for Underserved, Rural Educational Communities through AIR.U

by DeVan Hankerson and Ashley Brownlee on July 27, 2012

A consortium of major research institutions, including the United Negro College Fund, recently announced its initiative to upgrade broadband connectivity in underserved educational communities throughout rural America.  The consortium is called AIR.U, a group of higher education associations, public interest groups, and high tech companies that collectively represent over 500 educational institutions nationwide, including dozens of HBCUs.

Thanks to UNCF’s involvement in the AIR.U consortium, Super Wi-Fi networks are guaranteed to come to underserved populations in minority neighborhoods, a boon to African Americans and other minorities who fall behind whites in broadband adoption.

In addition to UNCF, AIR.U’s founding partners include Microsoft, Google, and the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. Other members of the consortium include regional and educational organizations such as the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and Gig.U.

The AIR.U Consortium will deploy Super Wi-Fi networks in pilot communities and develop a roadmap for the rapid deployment of additional next generation networks (NGN) in other rural areas. The consortium stated in its most recent press release that it expects one or more pilot networks to be operational by the first quarter of 2013.

Vacant TV Channel White Spaces Create Super Wi-Fi and New Broadband Access Options

Where traditional wired networks are more costly, Super Wi-Fi networks offer a less expensive alternative for access to high-speed wireless broadband. “Expanded broadband access has been an unaffordable hurdle in rural, underserved communities. The opportunity to acquire and leverage spectrum and broadband assets will go far in addressing the competitive disadvantage their absence created,” said Robert Rucker, vice president for operations and technology at the United Negro College Fund.

The allure of Super Wi-Fi is its ability to cover wide areas.  Its availability, particularly in rural areas where vacant television channels, also referred to as white spaces, amount to 70 percent or more of the total bandwidth available, is also important. Bandwidth (or spectrum) is the invisible pipeline that makes untethered, wireless Internet possible. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi that travels just a few hundred feet, Super Wi-Fi stretches Wi-Fi radio beams over several hundred miles and is unhindered by rugged terrain or man-made structures.

Part of the difficulty in laying traditional wired systems in rural areas is navigating geographically hard to reach places.  The AIR.U consortium’s focus on rural America is definitely a “step in the right direction,” according to Monnica Chan, director of policy and research for NEBHE.

Louis Fox, president and CEO of CENIC, noted that addressing the connectivity needs for 21st century research and education has been challenging. In many rural educational communities, there is more demand for high-speed Internet because of the town’s educational mission, but below average access to broadband due to its size or rural location.

Setting the Stage for the Future of Internet Services

Given the importance of educational institutions as hotbeds for innovation, the overall (net) impact of rural access cannot be overstated.

As The New York Times noted in an article on the subject, “Only by deploying next generation networks will it be possible to determine whether services like advanced online education systems and remote medical diagnosis and health care are really the wave of the future.”

Blair Levin, architect of the 2010 National Broadband Plan and executive director of Gig.U, said that deploying world-leading networks is a crucial factor that will pay dividends for our educational communities and the nation for years to come. University communities offer a starting base for future Internet services, and having test-beds like these is extremely important for the nation’s ability to sustain growth in the Internet enabled economy.

As a nation, the U.S. currently trails other industrialized nations in broadband speed. Akamai Technologies, one of the world’s largest Internet content delivery networks, lists Daegu, South Korea, as the world’s fastest city at 21.8 megabits per second. Boston, listed 51st, is the only U.S. city on the list, with an average speed of 8.4 megabits per second. In comparison to other nations, the U.S. ranks 13th.

The Greatest Beneficiaries of Super Wi-Fi Technology are Underserved Communities

One of the founding members of the AIR.U consortium, Gig.U deploys gigabit networks in flagship public research institutions. In fact, the AIR.U model was generated from the Gig.U process. Gig.U member institutions point out that “…while there is great value in having, for example, a gigabit network in the community of the flagship public university in a state, the value of the gigabit network is enhanced when all the colleges and universities in the state have much faster bandwidth networks than they do today.”

The educational system in the U.S. stands to improve tremendously with broader use of advanced technology. The influence of Super Wi-Fi network deployment will be broad, affecting curriculum development, assessment, and student engagement. Reaching this future depends on the U.S. increasing broadband access levels, especially in underserved communities.

The rural factor is a challenge for many colleges in these areas, because it means they often lack sufficient broadband and suffer because the need is more significant. The greatest beneficiaries of Super Wi-Fi technology will be underserved communities, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. He also noted that the combination of the large number of vacant TV channels and greater than average demand “makes them [rural colleges] ideal candidates for utilizing Super Wi-Fi spectrum to complement existing broadband capabilities.”

Earl F. Gohl, the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an AIR.U founding member group, noted that the partnership with AIR.U. will connect the students and people of rural Appalachian college communities with educational and economic opportunity. He said, “Appalachian communities cannot afford to wait for high-speed service to be delivered to them. Partnerships like this one put existing spectrum assets to work, and as a result, more quickly provide rural communities the high-speed service they need in order to compete with the rest of the world.”

Rucker noted that enhancing the capacity of institutions and adjoining communities will allow them to more fully experience the information age, and the ability to participate and contribute is extremely important. There are over 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States, and many of them are located in the regions that require the expanded coverage and capacity of high speed connectivity for research and education. Super Wi-Fi is available and can provide both.

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  • CarlsonWireless

    Carlson is delighted about the opportunity to work with the fine folks in involved in this project. As an equipment vendor, we look forward to the next phases of the project.

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