Rural Librarian: The Future of Wifi - E-Rate Expansion, White Spaces, and Public Places

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Future of Wifi - E-Rate Expansion, White Spaces, and Public Places

If you are a rural librarian, you know that access to broadband Internet is a problem in mountainous, remote Appalachian communities. In the Dry Fork Valley region of Randolph County, WV, there is only one Internet provider creating a monopoly for this service. Additionally, the Internet infrastructure that exists is old and sometimes unreliable. While we have an Internet wifi at the Pioneer Library, patrons must obtain a randomly generated username and password from a librarian during business hours. After business hours, many patrons do not have access to the Internet. If you are a city dweller, can you imagine not being able to afford Internet? Can you imagine not being plugged into the wifi grid for more than 24 hours? Our mountainous terrain makes it difficult even for cellular phone connections in West Virginia. But there is good news on the horizon for technology in rural libraries, tribal libraries, and public schools in the USA.

Thank You Senator Rockefeller

West Virginia's own Senator Rockefeller, who retired last year, achieved many wonderful things for the Mountain State. One of them is the E-Rate federal program that reimburses libraries and schools for telephone, long distance, and Internet. This is a national program that enables small, under-served, and rural libraries and schools to have the very best technology connection to the rest of the world. As a last farewell to his adopted home state, Rockefeller pushed through a multi-billion dollar E-Rate expansion that will hopefully allow every library and public school in the USA to have a super-fast fiber Internet connection. Thank you, Senator Jay Rockefeller for your service to West Virginia and to the rest of the country. Want to read more about it? Check out this article from New America that explains the fine print.

TV Goes Digital Leaves Spaces

Remember when televisions "went digital?" TV owners had to either upgrade to a new television or buy a digital-conversion box. This shift of television to digital freed up a large range of bandwidth that exists with the current infrastructure, the hardware of the super information highway. A fellow techie mentioned a conspiracy theory that cable companies would not allow these freed-up frequencies/channels/bandwidths to be used to offer free Internet because it would bankrupt Internet providers. OK. That was the rumor I heard that sparked this little rabbit hole of research into a nook of technology that I knew almost nothing about. Still interested? It's about to get more interesting, or, at least, I think so. The freed up bandwidth is known as White Spaces.

Conspiracy Theory?

So, did Internet providers conspire to keep free wifi from the people? The short answer is, no. White spaces, as they currently exist have no antennae or towers to broadcast their signal. There is no public infrastructure for global wifi that exists...yet. Making this even more difficult is that current computers would have to be equipped with hardware and software that communicates with the signal put out by white spaces wifi.

White Spaces at WVU

Another aspect of white spaces that is of interest: the first pilot campus-wide use of white spaces is happening at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV. Here is a great quote from WVU’s chief information officer John Campbell, "Broadband in this state is a huge challenge. We’re very rural and very mountainous. Between the terrain and the weather, it’s hard on infrastructure.” So, even in West Virginia's larger cities, reliable and fast Internet is a problem. About a year ago, WVU started using white spaces as an infrastructure for a campus-wide wifi that unites three campus via this old spectrum that used to be occupied by television. (Here is a great article about White Spaces at WVU from Network World. It's also where I pulled the quote from the WVU PR rep.)

How Do White Spaces Work?

White spaces. Old tv frequencies. New Uses. Potential for super wifi? OK, here's the part I'm fuzzy on. I am an information scientist but not a computer scientist. If you want the library technology geek details, I recommend this article from Information Age by Kane Fulton way back in March 2013.

Who owns the white spaces? Technically, they are still owned by the television networks who ruled them. The Federal Communications Committee has ultimate power of these white spaces and may force cable companies to auction them off when the time comes. Think of this as auctioning off swamp land that needs to be drained before it can be developed. According to a tech source whom will remain anonymous, white spaces are generating a lot more attention from Internet Service Providers than the FCC had predicted. The auctioning off of white spaces will be a multi-billion dollar affair no doubt ruled by AT&T, Cellular One, and Sprint, the usual ISP and cell phone suspects. So what will the FCC do with the billions that stand to make in auctioning off white spaces? Only time will tell. But wouldn't it be great if the Federal communications Commission could invest it in future E-Rate programs so that underserved and rural libraries and schools will be ensured free technology for years to come? It is most certainly what Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia would have wanted.

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