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Affordable Wireless Broadband for Rural Libraries



Affordable Wireless Broadband for Rural Libraries

Nasser H

by Frieda McAlear

Rural communities in America that are still struggling with access to broadband are in a multiple bind with e-government initiative rollouts such as the Affordable Care Act. Rural areas are likely to be in Republican districts and counties which may not support or promote e-government initiatives, and they are also less likely to have the broadband service needed to apply for and access online services.

However, a new technology to deliver wireless broadband to rural areas may help overcome the digital divide by leap-frogging the slow and costly buildout of Internet fiber to these disconnected communities.

At the Schools, Health, Libraries and Broadband (SHLB) Conference back in May, Gigabit Libraries Coordinator Don Means presented learnings from his pilot project to provide plug-and-play technology to libraries across communities in America underserved by broadband Internet providers. The project uses unlicensed television spectrum signals (also called TV white space, or TVWS) to supply wireless broadband with download speeds of up to 12Mbps to areas without affordable wired broadband connectivity.

Library broadband access is a priority for impoverished rural communities in particular. According to a 2010 survey, 44% of people experiencing poverty in the US use their public library for Internet access. Broadband connectivity at anchor institutions would change the game for underserved rural Americans, who are poised to benefit from accessing newer digital systems for health and human services.

So far, five libraries in Paonia, Colorado, and several in Kansas City have now tested the concept in their libraries as part of the year-long pilot project, connecting tens of thousands of patrons to free, publicly available broadband. The reach of television signal spectrum and the portability of broadband equipment allow libraries and other anchor institutions to provide free WiFi to other parts of the community through bookmobiles and even on public transit.

Toby Bradley, one of the coordinators of the TVWS project in Pascagoula School District in Mississippi, confirmed the ease of set-up and use of the antennas and base units deployed for the pilot. He was especially enthusiastic about the low cost of using TVWS for wireless broadband. The entire set-up cost to the school district was less than $10,000 to acquire, and no monthly costs are billed to the district, ever. In order to meet the demand for wireless connectivity in the Pascagoula School District, however, access times needed to be carefully scheduled to ensure maximum Internet speeds for users.

Thinking about using TV white space for broadband delivery in your community? Check out this TechRepublic article to learn more about the technology and contact the Gigabit Libraries Network at info [at] digitalvillage [dot] com.