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Consortium of Higher Education Groups, Microsoft and Google Launch Program to Deploy Big Bandwidth to Underserved College Communities

AIR.U to Use Super Wi-Fi networks to Extend Broadband

Published: June 26, 2012

A consortium of higher education associations, public interest groups and high-tech companies today announced a partnership named AIR.U (Advanced Internet Regions) to deploy Super Wi-Fi networks to upgrade the broadband available to underserved campuses and their surrounding communities. By using unlicensed access to unused television channels (TV band “White Spaces”), universities and neighboring communities will be able to significantly expand the coverage and capacity of high-speed wireless connectivity both on and off campus.


As The Economist noted in a recent article: “Apart from easing bandwidth problems, white-space could lead to a wireless revolution even bigger than the wave of innovation unleashed over a decade ago when Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies embraced the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band previously reserved for microwave ovens and garage-door openers.”


The founding Higher Ed organizations collectively represent over 500 colleges and universities nationwide, and include the United Negro College Fund, 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, and Gig.U, a consortium of 37 major universities committed to accelerating world-leading broadband connectivity and services. Founding partners also include Microsoft, Google, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington D.C., the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and Declaration Networks Group, LLC, a newly created organization established to plan, deploy and operate Super Wi-Fi technologies.


AIR.U 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.


“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 & Technology at the United Negro College Fund. “This effort will enable selected institutions and all the constituents they serve to have the enhanced, sustainable capacity needed to more fully experience the information age and the ability to participate and contribute to it.”


ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl F. Gohl, noting the urgency of providing high-speed Internet access in rural Appalachia, welcomed the partnership. “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,” Gohl stated.


Super Wi-Fi networks will transmit on much lower frequencies than today’s Wi-Fi, allowing the broadband signals to penetrate further into buildings and cover much larger areas. The idea for AIR.U arose during the 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. At the same time, New America and other respondents identified Super Wi-Fi as a powerful, low-cost and wellsuited path for providing this necessary upgrade to rural and underserved higher-ed communities.


“Colleges in rural areas will be the greatest beneficiaries of Super Wi-Fi networks because they are located in communities that often lack sufficient broadband, their needs are greater and there is typically a large number of vacant TV channels outside the biggest urban markets,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “This combination of factors makes them ideal candidates for utilizing Super Wi-Fi spectrum to complement existing broadband capabilities.”


“We could not be more delighted that AIR.U was born out of the Gig.U effort, which only further validates the need to upgrade the bandwidth available to communities surrounding our research universities and our colleges throughout the country,” said Blair Levin, Executive Director of Gig.U (a project of the Aspen Institute) and the Executive Director of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. “We firmly believe this deployment of next generation broadband networks and services will be an economic tide to raise all boats.”


Last December the FCC certified the first commercial devices and geolocation database that will be needed to ensure that White Space devices operate only on vacant TV channels and do not interfere with television reception. Nationwide certifications of a variety of equipment makers and database operators are expected in the coming months.


“While California’s urban coastal areas are well-served by broadband, the state’s remote and rural regions are extremely difficult to reach without wireless technology, and many CENIC member institutions are located in these regions,” said Louis Fox, the President and CEO of CENIC. “Maintaining these institutions at the level of connectivity required for 21st century research and education is a constant challenge for CENIC,” Fox added. “Thus, deploying Wi-Fi networks that expand the coverage and capacity of high-speed connectivity for research and education communities both on and off-campus is a crucial part of the CENIC mission, and we’re delighted to take part in AIR.U.”


“With the high concentration of postsecondary institutions throughout New England, we are thrilled to be a member of the AIR.U partnership,” said Monnica Chan, Director of Policy & Research for NEBHE. “At a time when sectors like education and health are booming with innovative, disruptive technology like distance learning and tele-health, deploying Wi-Fi networks in a way that expands coverage for communities is key. Leveraging university communities to pilot this technology is precisely a step in the right direction,” Chan added.


The AIR.U consortium expects one or more pilot networks will be operational by the first quarter of 2013.


For more information or to schedule an interview with one of New America’s experts from the Open Technology Institute, please contact Clara Hogan at 202-596-3368 or hogan@newamerica.net.