West Virginia U. Provides ‘Super Wi-Fi’ Through Unused TV Channels

West Virginia University has announced that it is now providing broadband Internet access to its campus and the surrounding area via unlicensed and unused television channels. This move away from traditional wi-fi hotspots makes the university the first in the nation to use television channels to provide Internet connectivity, said Michael Calabrese, director of the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Project, which assisted in the transition.

Julius Genachowski, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, described the notion of providing Internet service through television channels as “super wi-fi” because such connectivity can be broadcast for great distances and can penetrate large obstacles that standard wi-fi hotspots struggle to overcome.

Or as John Campbell, West Virginia’s chief information officer, put it in an e-mail, “what is ‘super’ about it is that it has much greater range than conventional wi-fi (at the same power levels). In other words, it can go places regular wi-fi can’t.”

Mr. Campbell said that, at low power levels, super wi-fi has a range of about 1,400 feet, compared with about 300 feet for conventional wi-fi. At higher power levels, super wi-fi’s range can be extended up to five miles, he said. It essentially blankets large regions with connectivity—even over hills, through walls, or in forested areas.

Such connectivity is ideal for a rural campus like West Virginia’s, which may struggle to provide ubiquitous, high-speed Internet service, said Mr. Calabrese of the Wireless Future Project. The project works to promote universal and affordable broadband connections. To attract and retain students and faculty members, rural institutions “need to find new ways that are affordable to make connectivity ubiquitous,” Mr. Calabrese said.

An urban institution like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology needs thousands of wi-fi hotspots to cover its campus, Mr. Calabrese said. But providing such coverage is even more difficult for rural colleges, which might need Internet access across a larger area or have a campus with significant obstacles, such as trees or other natural barriers.

Mr. Calabrese said that providing wireless connections through TV channels can be done anywhere that has unused channels, but it is generally easier to do in rural areas because they tend to have more channels available.

Super wi-fi can have benefits beyond serving students and faculty members. For instance, it can be used to provide wi-fi on public buses and for remote communities that lack good Internet connections. West Virginia’s Mr. Campbell said that the university was considering such additional applications.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Mignon Clyburn, acting chairwoman of the FCC, commended the university’s efforts to provide Internet service in hard-to-reach areas. “This pilot will not only demonstrate how TV white-space technologies can help bridge the digital divide, but also could offer valuable insights into how best to structure future deployments,” she said.

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