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UNH to test ‘Super Wi-Fi’ technology that could expand broadband access in rural areas

The University of New Hampshire next month will begin testing an experimental way to provide wireless high-speed internet access across several miles via TV-style signals, a technology officials hope will offer an inexpensive solution to the problem of scarce broadband access in rural areas.

“This new, innovative technology is reliable. It is low-cost. It is emerging around the globe,” said Rouzbeh Yassini, executive director of UNH’s Broadband Center of Excellence, during a meeting yesterday with the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee.

The Gigabit Libraries Network last month selected UNH as one of six sites to test the technology sometimes called “Super Wi-Fi,” which makes use of “TV white space,” gaps between licensed television stations in the broadcast spectrum.

The New Hampshire experiment will involve two transmitters: one at UNH in Durham connected to four nearby libraries and a second in the North Country. It should begin in mid-October and run through the end of the year, Yassini said, adding that details will be announced in the next couple of weeks.

The project comes as federal and state officials wrestle with the problem of helping remote areas connect to the internet at high speeds.

More than half – 53 percent – of New Hampshire users who took an online test had download speeds of 4 Mbps or less, said Fay Rubin, project director for the New Hampshire Broadband Mapping and Planning Program. The Federal Communications Commission defines 4 Mbps as the minimum threshold for “broadband” service.

In 2006, the state began allowing county and municipal governments to issue bonds for building “broadband infrastructure” in “areas not served by an existing broadband carrier or provider” – sparsely populated areas where there weren’t enough potential customers to attract companies such as Comcast and FairPoint.

Since then, some lawmakers have sought to lift the restriction on where local governments could build broadband infrastructure, without much success. A 2010 bill was sent to interim study, a 2011 bill was killed by the House and a bill this year was retained by the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee for more work.

Supporters have argued that, in order to reach neighborhoods that lack broadband service, new cable must sometimes cross areas that already have service. Internet service providers and business groups, on the other hand, have said those bills would allow town and city governments to compete with the private sector on unfair terms.

But Yassini’s presentation yesterday to the committee members working on this year’s retained bill presented an alternative to high-cost fiber-optic cables.

TV white space technology is relatively new, with the FCC granting permission to use the unused television spectrum in 2010. It’s being tested at sites around the world, including by technology giants such as Google and Microsoft.

It’s early, Yassini cautioned. But if it pans out, which he said should become clear within six months to three years, it could be “a game changer.”

A base station with an antenna connects to the internet via fiber-optic cable or another method, he said, and then broadcasts a signal with a range of 10 to 15 kilometers, about 6.2 to 9.3 miles. A dozen to several hundred customers using special equipment can use the signal to access the internet wirelessly.

Speed, he said, is a moving target, but in the broadband range.

“Whatever number I tell you today is obsolete by the time I get outside this room,” Yassini told the House members.

It doesn’t require a line-of-sight connection, he said, unlike other methods of wireless internet service such as a microwave link.

And, he said, it’s fairly cheap – several thousand dollars for the base station, and several hundred dollars (for now) for customer equipment.

That, presumably, would eliminate the need for local governments to issue bonds to pay for a project.

“This is a perfect technology to be used for that last rural mile,” said Carole Monroe, executive director of New Hampshire FastRoads, a Keene-based program that builds fiber-optic cables in underserved areas.

Internet service providers, too, sound excited.

“This technology is a great complement for exactly what New Hampshire is trying to do – to get those people in the most rural areas, that a provider can’t cost-justify wiring, to get those people service,” said Ellen Scarponi, FairPoint’s state director of government relations and economic development.

And, she said, “the current law could accommodate financing for this exact project.”

It’s not clear what, if any, action the Legislature will take. No vote was taken yesterday on the pending bill; committee members will meet again Oct. 15 to continue their deliberations.

Rep. Charles Townsend, a Canaan Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, said he’s hopeful a solution will emerge.

“I hope we end up with a bill that will provide lots of routes, rather than barriers, to providing fast, reliable broadband throughout the state,” he said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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