A handful of pilot projects are being eyeballed for launch over TV white-space spectrum in the first quarter of next year with an aim toward developing AIR.U, a broad plan for delivering broadband access to underserved college campuses and surrounding communities.
AIR.U (the AIR stands for Advanced Internet Regions) was conceived by a group of higher-education associations, public interest groups and high-tech companies, including Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). The group hopes to quickly select communities for pilot testing in early 2013. Participants in the initiative are funding the tests. No budget for the tests or subsequent service rollout was disclosed.
The idea of AIR.U was indirectly built upon the concept of Gig.U, a consortium of 37 major universities committed to accelerating broadband connectivity and services. Gig.U, which is also a participant in the AIR.U effort, does not fund broadband deployments, however.
"We could not be more delighted that AIR.U was born out of the Gig.U effort, which only further validates the need to upgrade the bandwidth available to communities surrounding our research universities and our colleges throughout the country," said Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U as well as executive director of the FCC's National Broadband Plan. "We firmly believe this deployment of next-generation broadband networks and services will be an economic tide to raise all boats."
In addition to delivering broadband to institutions of higher education, if successful,the AIR.U program could stimulate demand for white-space equipment, helping drive volume-based economies of scale from which others using white-space spectrum might benefit. AIR.U could also help popularize the term Super Wi-Fi, which the consortium championing AIR.U prefers to use rather than the more aptly descriptive term, TV white space.
One looming issue for AIR.U concerns spectrum availability. The payroll-tax extension bill signed into law in February included a provision allowing the FCC to continue allocating TV white space for unlicensed broadband use. However, it also set in motion plans for an incentive auction in which TV broadcasters would be encouraged to sell off their spectrum. If numerous broadcasters decide to give up their spectrum that could actually reduce the amount of white space because that broadcast spectrum might then be put to non-TV use.
Levin said in a conference call that because AIR.U is focused on rural and underserved areas, it is unlikely that the white-space spectrum it wants to use will be poached at auction by commercial operators.
The founding higher-education organizations behind AIR.U collectively represent more than 500 colleges and universities nationwide. Founding partners also include Microsoft, Google, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation think tank, the Appalachian Regional Commission and Declaration Networks Group, a newly created organization established to plan, deploy and operate TV white-space technologies.
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