MADISON, Wis. — West Virginia University advanced the cause of offering expanded broadband access to underserved rural communities with the announcement Tuesday, July 9, that it became the first university in the United States to use low-frequency "white spaces" -- left empty by TV stations that have switched to digital broadcasting -- to provide wireless broadband coverage on the campus and nearby areas.
The university rolled out the pilot program in partnership with the Advanced Internet Regions consortium (AIR.U), a group of more than 500 higher learning institutions and technology industry partners such as Google and Microsoft.
The group'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," said the consortium in a statement last year.
The initial phase of the network provides free public WiFi access for students and faculty on a 73-car tram system that transports some 15,000 riders daily, known as PRT, or Personal Rapid Transit.
Improved wireless connectivity and broadband coverage, with the campus as a test site, "may well offer a solution for the many West Virginia communities where broadband access continues to be an issue," West Virginia University chief information officer John Campbell said in a statement.
Pros and cons of "Super WiFi"
The wireless broadband network offered at West Virginia University is called "Super WiFi" -- a term originally coined by the Federal Communications Commission with the intention of creating new longer-distance wireless Internet access in both metropolitan and rural areas.
The terminology, however, is somewhat controversial, because Super WiFi isn't compatible with WiFi (which is trademarked). Unlike WiFi, which uses a 2.4 GHz radio frequency, Super WiFi uses lower-frequency white spaces between television channels. The result is that Super WiFi must use a different radio from conventional WiFi, and currently two different standards are being developed for the white-space spectrum: IEEE8021.11af and IEEE802.22.
Critics also claim that there is nothing "super" about Super WiFi. Compared to the latest WiFi standard such as IEEE 802.11ac, designed to deliver throughput rates close to 1 Gigabit per second in a base configuration, Super WiFi is reportedly slow -- limited to a peak rate of 29 megabits per second.
However, Super WiFi signals, at lower frequencies, are better at broaching thick walls and covering larger expanses.
FCC spectrum auction
In conjunction with the FCC's incentive spectrum auction proposal, launched in September 2012, the industry and the media have stirred both debate and confusions over the FCC's spectrum plan, how best to use the white spaces, and how Super WiFi might fit into the picture.
Just to clarify, the FCC is talking of two types of spectrum, when it discusses unlicensed devices to operate in "white spaces." The agency sees the white spaces in the TV spectrum as an opportunity for "a new generation of products such as Super WiFi and wireless broadband services for communities, particularly in rural areas."