The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the independent non-profit group US Ignite awarded $2.7 million in grants to boost internet connectivity in underserved communities, aiming to gather key data for future broadband deployments from seven unique projects.
Grants will cover projects in five states and Puerto Rico, with NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan stating in a video announcing the awardees that these will provide broadband connectivity to nearly 1,300 people who currently have limited or no service.
Funding was distributed as part of Project OVERCOME, an initiative developed in late 2020 by NSF and administered by US Ignite. NSF contributed $2.25 million to the effort, with an additional $450,000 provided by Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Mari Silbey, US Ignite’s senior director of partnerships and outreach, told Fierce most of the projects were awarded around $300,000 and will be completed within a 12-month timeframe, with initial deployments expected within “a few months.”
She stressed Project OVERCOME is about more than connectivity for connectivity’s sake. “The big reason that a lot of the teams were picked was the combination really of the technical as well as the ‘how are you going to engage the citizens that are not being served’…So it’s access but that’s only one piece,” she explained.
The ultimate goal, Silbey said, is to gather data about what works in certain environments and create project roadmaps that can be replicated in other communities across the country.
“We are clearly on the cusp of more federal investment in broadband, and knowing that this was coming we really wanted to get some research done on the ground to figure out some solutions for how to put that money to work so that it delivers real results for communities,” she said.
Silbey noted the projects will use a range of technologies, including fixed wireless access, fiber, and millimeter wave and Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. The latter is shared spectrum, which was recently released by the Federal Communications Commission for general and licensed use.
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She highlighted the planned use of 60 GHz spectrum and various last-mile wireless technologies to deliver broadband to a historically Black community in Cleveland, Ohio. Another project in Missouri will deploy RF over Fiber with intelligent routing to connect a rural community in the state, while one in Detroit, Michigan will light up fixed wireless access. A wireless mesh network will be the technology of choice for a project in Puerto Rico, with CBRS the star of the show in three other projects spread across New York state and Oregon.
Silbey revealed CBRS was popular among grant applicants, a trend she said was “fascinating” given the telecom industry’s focus on applying that spectrum to industrial, enterprise and manufacturing applications.
“To suddenly see it emerge as a possibility for community wireless was certainly interesting,” she said. “Whether or not that means that CBRS is the be-all-end-all for getting communities connected or whether it’s one piece that maybe leads to further investment…we’ll see.”