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West Virginia Taps White Spaces for Wi-Fi Network

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Clyburn, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, has praised West Virginia University for its pioneering use of unlicensed spectrum to create free Wi-Fi access.

West Virginia University recently became a pioneer in the use of unlicensed spectrum when it launched a Wi-Fi network based on unused airwaves between TV channels known as “white spaces.”

Earlier this month, the university announced the 15,000 daily riders of its public tram system would get free Wi-Fi access, courtesy of a new pilot program with AIR.U, the Advanced Internet Regions consortium.

“This may well offer a solution for the many West Virginia communities where broadband access continues to be an issue,” said John Campbell, the university’s chief information officer, “and we are pleased to be able to be a test site for a solution that may benefit thousands of West Virginians.”

The network uses TV band spectrum to deliver Wi-Fi access over large swaths of terrain, including mountains, trees and other obstacles, that block traditional Wi-Fi networks. The Federal Communications Commission moved to open up the white spaces in 2010 after the transition to digital television, setting the stage for rural communities to leverage the vacant TV airwaves to deliver super Wi-Fi networks.

“Innovative deployment of TV white spaces presents an exciting opportunity for underserved rural and low-income urban communities across the country,” FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said. “I commend AIR.U and West Virginia University on launching a unique pilot program that provides campus-wide Wi-Fi services using TV white space devices.”

“This pilot will not only demonstrate how TV white space technologies can help bridge the digital divide but also could offer valuable insights into how best to structure future deployments,” Clyburn added.

Advocates of greater unlicensed spectrum, including public interest groups and tech companies such as Google, argue the FCC should ensure adequate low-band spectrum is set aside from next year’s incentive auction to permit more innovation in the unlicensed space. But that goal is hampered by both the severe demand for spectrum among wireless companies and the crowded marketplace in urban areas, where there are few unused TV channels.

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