White Space broadband: 10 communities doing big projects

People outside of the world's biggest cities need reliable internet, too. White Space broadband is a beacon of hope. These 10 communities are making it happen.

With the growth of the digital economy, more people need access to quality broadband internet. However, there is still an important deficit in access outside of major metro areas because of costs and availability.

White Space broadband has the potential to revolutionize the way we access the internet, especially for those in rural areas, where there is ample free, unlicensed White Space spectrum to utilize. There is not much White Space spectrum available in densely populated cities such as Los Angeles or New York City, where more people are using more television channels and there are more broadcasting stations. The technology is relatively new and ambiguous, so most deployments are still in trial phases. Many of the trials are happening in connection with libraries.


Google's White Space spectrum availability map, provided by its database.

 Image: Google

Don Means is the coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN), which is a global network of projects that promotes libraries as natural technology hubs for the communities they are located in, as well as promoting free, open source information in these communities through White Space broadband. The project focus areas, defined by GLN, are:

  • Broadband utilization and wired/wireless infrastructure development

  • Collaborations between neighboring school, public and academic librarians  

  • Community technology and information policy leadership

"Libraries are global, they have a long tradition to do basic service, so who better to use White Space to extend services," Means said. "Libraries can play support roles, so they are the perfect lab to experiment, and there are staff professionals trained to help you."

In the US, the FCC is currently researching and deploying Rural Broadband Experiments to learn more about White Space in rural areas around the country. The program started at the end of January and the locations will be decided soon.

"This pilot program will help us learn how fiber might be deployed where it is not now deployed; how anchor institutions — including schools and libraries — can harness demand for the greater good of an entire community," said Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman, in a statement regarding the experiments. "And how new forms of wireless can reach deep into the interior of rural America."

We've put together a list of 10 rural — and a few urban — communities experimenting with White Space broadband in innovative ways.

If you're new to White Space, read this first: White Space, the next internet disruption: 10 things to know

1. Wilmington, North Carolina

In 2012, nearly three years after the FCC proposed the first White Space commercial network in Wilmington, North Carolina, the city finally implemented this project. The project is run through Spectrum Bridge, one of the first FCC-approved White Space databases, and Wilmington was chosen because it was the first city to the switch from analog to digital TV, which freed up the wireless spectrum for White Space. Since the project began, the government is using the network to connect two local parks and several public gardens, monitor water levels, water quality, and public lighting. The city was also a pilot location for testing White Space devices to be approved by the FCC for commercial use.

2. Pascagoula, Mississippi

After Hurricane Katrina, the Pascagoula School District wanted to have White Space technology available as a disaster recovery resource. The project was designed to increase internet access for the community. The community built a moveable unit consisting of a tower and telescope. It can be moved for community events, whether that's a county fair or a concert, or in the case of emergencies, become a transportable Wi-Fi hotspot. Pascagoula also plans to use the technology to replace a DSL connection in an Adult Learning Center, which will triple the bandwidth and lower the monthly bill.

3. Delta County, Colorado

Five libraries in the Delta County libraries system  serve 30,000 people. The main White Space equipment was installed in a library in Paonia, Colorado, a town of about 1,500 people. The Gigabit Libraries Network pilot began in October 2013, but in the middle of the trial, the county sliced the budget. The community thought they would have to give the equipment back and stop the White Space pilot. The hotspots in Paonia, downtown and in the park, used digital radio hardware from Carlson Wireless and Wi-Fi access points from Cisco Meraki. However, to finish funding the project, the town organized a Kickstarter campaign, attempting to raise $4,000. With 63 backers from the community and elsewhere around the country, it was funded in 30 days.

4. Visayas, Philippines

The Philippines pilot tests for White Space broadband are the most extensive in Asia. According to Means, the country is an ideal location to test White Space broadband, with its thick foliage, remote locations, and widespread villages. The pilot tests started after the Bohol earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in 2013, and helped to provide critical disaster relief and allowed information to be transmitted throughout the affected areas of Bohol and Leyte provinces in the Visayas.

The Information and Communications Technology Office of the Department of Science and Technology is working with a private company, Nityo Infotech, for the projects. Leaders want to expand the broadband to power telemedicine, government services, education, and healthcare, as well as internet in public places.

"There is always the concern of power supply, but you can do that with a generator, solar power, or fixed locations," Means said. "It's an autonomous hub of communication and electricity."