January 17, 2017

WhiteSpace Project Could Grow Rural Broadband Access

Libraries WhiteSpaceLeveraging TV white space (TVWS)—unused, license-exempt portions of the radio spectrum that have been traditionally allocated to television broadcasters—could expand broadband Internet access in rural areas. The San José State University (SJSU) School of Information, in partnership with the Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN), has been assessing ways to do so through the Libraries WhiteSpace Project.

As a secondary goal the project, which recently was awarded a National Leadership Grant of nearly $250,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), also aims to evaluate how public libraries and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs), such as schools and hospitals, might provide TVWS-based Wi-Fi access as a component of local disaster response. Additional partners include the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), and Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC).

“We’re really excited to see all of the efforts that libraries are making to provide access to [digital] content and digital services. But all of those are really only viable if all end users in the country have the ability to get online and get access to them,” IMLS senior program officer Trevor Owens told LJ. “Really, whatever area you think about libraries working in—whether it’s supporting access to cultural collections, or ebooks, or things that support jobs and workforce development, or public health. You name any social issue, they’re all tied back to a baseline equity of access.”

Regular Wi-Fi routers have an indoor range of 30 to 50 meters. By contrast, the Libraries WhiteSpace Project estimates that an outdoor omnidirectional TVWS base station antenna can broadcast to a radius of 10 kilometers, or more than six miles, mostly unimpeded by surrounding terrain, buildings, or tree cover. To provide access, a central or strategically located library branch connected to the library’s Internet access point would install a base station antenna. Other branches and partner CAIs within that six-mile radius would then receive the signal with remote client radios connected to local Wi-Fi routers, creating broadband hotspots throughout the community. In the event of a disaster, these hotspots could be relocated to areas with the most need.

“We’ve been offering Wi-Fi in libraries for a really long time, but as fantastic of a technology as it is, [patrons] are limited in terms of proximity to the library,” said Kristen Rebmann, associate professor for the SJSU iSchool and codirector of the Libraries WhiteSpace Project. “Users have to actually visit the library building in order to gain access to those services.”

Reaching rural residents

Rural areas are particularly well suited for this use of TVWS. While urban and suburban areas with robust media and wireless markets will have fewer unused frequencies available for this type of network, rural areas are less likely to encounter conflicts, Rebmann told LJ. The FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress report estimated that 39 percent of rural Americans currently do not have access to broadband connections (although the agency currently sets a download speed benchmark of 25 Mbps).

“Areas that are rural and really underserved are more likely to accommodate TVWS networks due to the high availability of spectrum in those areas,” she explained. “It’s a nice reversal, usually urban areas have all of the access or the benefits of technology. But in this case, because there’s going to be a lot of frequency availability, rural areas can capitalize on TVWS fairly easily.”

For similar reasons, some Internet Service Providers (ISP) in rural areas have also begun using TVWS for commercial purposes. For example, Axiom Technologies in Washington County, ME, received a $72,800 grant from Microsoft in May 2016 to explore the use of TVWS. As noted by a Portland Press Herald article at the time, “80 percent of Maine doesn’t have access to high-speed Internet service, which is defined as having ten megabits per second (Mbps)…download speeds.”

Using a combination of federal stimulus grants and private funds, Maine completed a $32 million, 1,100 mile high-capacity fiber optic network in 2012 called “Three Ring Binder” to begin addressing this issue. But while major broadband infrastructure projects like these are crucial for establishing and enhancing “middle mile” segments of a broadband network and providing high speed access to CAIs in rural areas, it is often economically unfeasible for the ISPs that service these communities to wire remote locations where few potential subscribers reside. With TVWS as a fixed wireless solution, however, several nonprofit and commercial pilot projects around the world have reported achieving download speeds of ten Mbps or in some cases, even 20 Mbps, making connections that are speedier than DSL, but with a lower potential top speed than cable.

The Libraries WhiteSpace Project will examine how rural libraries in the United States could help address similar problems by providing fixed wireless broadband in public spaces and potentially, in some cases, directly to homes. In addition to expanding the potential reach of a library’s electronic resources within its community, “there are several potential benefits of library-led collaborations to deploy TVWS networks in [CAIs] and other public spaces,” the IMLS grant proposal explains. “K–12 schools can close the ‘homework gap’ by using TVWS to provide wireless Internet service directly to access points (APs) in student homes that are otherwise lacking connections. Health providers can create direct connections to the homes of patients for remote patient monitoring. Finally, the portability of access points allows libraries to extend their reach by providing wireless connections to cultural or civic events like fairs, markets, or concerts.”

Building on early adopters

The project will build on information gleaned from TVWS pilots that GLN helped develop beginning in late 2013 in the Paonia branch of the Delta County Library District, CO; the Manhattan Public Library, KS (MPL) in conjunction with the Kansas State Library; the school district of Pascagoula, MS; and Delaware’s Greenwood and Laurel public libraries in conjunction with the Delaware Division of Libraries.

In January 2015, GLN and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) were awarded funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation News Challenge to help continue the project.

A FAQ written by MPL IT manager Kerry Ingersoll a few months after launch explained that the first remote access point/hotspot at a city park playground had proven immediately popular, and ultimately, two additional access points at the city’s Douglass Community Recreation Center and City Park Pool had “made a significant contribution to our [usage statistics] totals. The City administration is pleased with being able to offer Wi-Fi at these locations with little expense or hassle on their part.”

Based on usage statistics from MPL and other pilot libraries, the Libraries Whitespace Project’s grant proposal estimates that adding TVWS to a rural library’s network will boost usage by more than 20 percent.

But Ingersoll also noted that “this installation also puts my IT staff in a new realm…broadcast engineers. Not that we haven’t handled it, but there is an installation and management learning curve that some may find just too complicated to tackle…. In fairness, this is a new technology, and undoubtedly installation and management will be easier going forward. Don [Means, Libraries Whitespace Project co-director for GLN] has already shared with me how this is starting to change.”

In Delaware, an early assessment published by Delaware Libraries noted that network technologist Ed Moore had concluded that “the signal strength is good and the proof of concept for the technology is successful,” but that the equipment was currently expensive, and components from different vendors were not interoperable, adding that “being a new technology, early adopters have to pay for [research and development].”

The cost for a base station and three to five hotspots from North American manufacturers such as Adaptrum, Carlson Wireless Technologies, and 6Harmonics can run to $6,000—a price that, when combined with any concerns about locally maintaining an emerging technology, might deter the same small, rural libraries that could benefit their communities most with TVWS. Studying and addressing those concerns is one of the goals of the Libraries Whitespace Project, Rebmann noted. She added that the project had been in communication with the pilot sites launched by GLN and Means, and that feedback regarding uptime and maintenance had been positive. “So far, with those sites, we haven’t found that sustaining the network is a real challenge.”

Phasing in

The two-year project’s first phase involves building an open, online course using canvas.net and hosted by the SJSU iSchool “to raise awareness of the technology and how librarians might develop their own proposals for a [TVWS] network,” Rebmann said. The six-module course is scheduled to go live in February.

In phase two, the project will author program guidelines and develop specific criteria for subawards that will infuse five libraries with $15,000 in funds to support TVWS implementation, according to the grant proposal. Once those networks are deployed, the third phase will involve collecting from these subaward recipients quantitative data such as usage statistics, and qualitative data including reports, planning documents, and surveys. Rebmann and Means also plan to travel to and observe these implementation sites and survey the librarians working on the networks.

The final phase of the project will involve evaluating and processing the impact of the five subaward implementations, including an analysis of how these TVWS networks can help “improve Internet access/inclusion, models for crisis response collaboration among CAIs, and the role TVWS might play as a sustainable, resilient wireless infrastructure,” the proposal states.

In addition to project codirectors Rebmann and Means, other key collaborators include SHLB executive director John Windhausen, NDIA director Angela Siefer, and ITDRC operations director Joe Hillis.

COSLA has remained an affiliate of this new phase of the project, along with other organizations including the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), the National Association of Telecommunications Officials (NATOA), the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA), OTI/ New America Foundation, IREX / Beyond Access, Public Knowledge, the Wireless ISP Association (WISPA), Internet2, and the WhiteSpace Alliance.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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