AIR.U using Super WiFi to reach underserved college communities

Household names like Google, Microsoft and the United Negro College Fund are part of the consortium that aims to bring broadband to small-town and rural campuses.

A consortium including powerhouse names like Google and Microsoft, the United Negro College Fund and the New England Board of Higher Education is making it a mission to use Super WiFi (also called "whitespace WiFi") to provide broadband access to underserved college and university communities. Super WiFi makes use of unused television spectrum to achieve wireless connectivity.

The consortium is called AIR.U (Advanced Internet Regions) and according to the organization, it "will focus on upgrading broadband offerings in those communities that, because of their educational mission, have greater than average demand but often, because of their rural or small-town location, have below average broadband. The consortium's initial goal is to plan and deploy several pilot networks in diverse university communities and create a roadmap for the rapid deployment of sustainable, next-generation wireless networks as white space equipment becomes widely available in 2013."

Comments from several of the consortium's members emphasize that the effort will break down some economic barriers for many participating learning institutions. "Expanded broadband access has been an unaffordable hurdle in rural, underserved communities," said United Negro College Fund vice president for operations and technology Robert Rucker. Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) federal co-chair Earl F. Gohl noted, "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."

Transmitting on lower frequencies than today's WiFi systems enables Super WiFi signals "to penetrate further into buildings and cover much larger areas," the consortium said when announcing the initiative.

The idea for AIR.U arose out of the efforts of Gig.U, The University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, which describes itself as "a broad-based group of over 30 leading research universities from across the U.S. ... Gig.U seeks to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and their surrounding communities." The AIR.U concept developed from a Gig.U request for information process, "in which a number of rural colleges, who were not eligible to join Gig.U, realized that their constituents needed gigabit connectivity just as much as larger research-based university communities," the organization said, adding that a number of respondents to the RFI "identified Super WiFi as a powerful, low-cost and well-suited path for providing this necessary upgrade ..."

A newly created organization, Declaration Networks Group, LLC, has been established to plan, deploy and operate Super WiFi technologies. In a frequently-asked-questions document, AIR.U explains, "The project will be coordinated through New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, with the operational planning activities, including ultimate deployment and operation of Super WiFi networks, managed by Declaration Networks Group, LLC. Activities in the planning phase will be coordinated directly with colleges, universities and their communities along with support from the participating higher ed associations."

That document also explains that the program begins in the summer of 2012 with its network and operational planning phase. Additionally, founding members will initially fund the project, then "additional funding sources will be applied as required to roll-out the pilot communities and to extend the deployment model beyond the pilot activity."

You can find out more information by visiting the Gig.U page here or by downloading the AIR.U FAQ document here.

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