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Super Wi-Fi Takes Flight

New Hanover County, N.C., and Houston roll out white-space networks

City and county officials leading the first commercial white-space network report promising early results.

When TV broadcasters switched from analog to digital in 2009, additional spectrum was made available for white-space networks (also known as Super Wi-Fi). Signals operating at lower frequencies can travel further and better penetrate trees, buildings and other obstacles compared with traditional Wi-Fi.

New Hanover County, N.C., the site of the country's first analog-to-digital TV changeover, is now the Federal Communication Commission's first licensee using commercial white-space networks, says Leslie Chaney, director of IT for the county. "We brainstormed places we had trouble reaching with traditional wireless," she says.

In addition to wireless broadband, the network has enabled a traffic camera on a bridge in a marshy region not easily reached by fiber, a sensor monitoring water quality and surveillance cameras mounted unobtrusively on trees in local parks.

Extending Access

"Since we went live, the technology has been rock-solid," Chaney says. The county partners with TV Band Service; Spectrum Bridge, a company whose spectrum management database directs devices to available portions of networks; and KTS Wireless, which manufactures white-space radios.

Places that are starved for reliable Wi-Fi service could see substantial benefit as the technology becomes more broadly available, adds Chaney.

Portions of the sprawling city of Houston are among those access-starved places. William Reed, president and CEO of Technology for All, a Houston nonprofit organization that provides broadband to low-income households in east Houston, is working with faculty and students at Rice University to improve wireless coverage for residents.

"We started five years ago, primarily using 802.11 technology, but now we're overlaying that with white space," Reed says. "Our hope is also to do this in rural sites in Texas, where we would have more channels that are contiguous for delivering additional bandwidth and higher quality of service."

300 million Amount allocated by the Federal Communication Commission's Wireless Telecommunications and Wireline Competition bureaus to support the expansion of mobile broadband service into areas where it is not currently available

SOURCE: FCC

As more manufacturers seek to develop products making use of white space, Larry Bergman, IT director for the city of Wilmington, N.C., sees great potential. "I hope that they not only develop radio receivers that, like Wi-Fi, can be put into laptops, but that they consider smart grid [applications]," such as parking meters that could be reprogrammed remotely, or sensors embedded into roads, says Bergman, whose team works with New Hanover County personnel on the white-space project.

Uncertain Future

Google, HP, Microsoft and other tech companies are strong proponents of continued availability of unlicensed white space. However, several bills pending in Congress could make it harder for unlicensed spectrum to remain that way. Pressed to find additional revenue sources to offset the federal deficit, lawmakers are debating whether to auction off white space to major carriers. Critics contend that such a move would stifle competition and hamper efforts to improve wireless coverage across the country.

Roger Hayden, director of the ­Claudville Computer ­Center in Claudville, Va., says he sees great things ahead if white space remains free. The nonprofit offers web access to citizens and pilot tested Spectrum Bridge's technology.

"If the feds auction off [the open spectrum] to the highest bidder, it will prevent the growth of new technology through white space," Hayden says.

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Mar 28 2012

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