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West Virginia University became the first college in the U.S. to use empty TV broadcast channels for something better than ye olde boob tube: Internet.

WVU partnered with AIR.U, which includes Microsoft and Google, to provide free Wi-Fi access for students and faculty that extends far beyond the typical hundred feet of so of “real” Wi-Fi. “Super Wi-Fi,” which isn’t really Wi-Fi at all, received approval from the Federal Communications Commission in 2010.

While standard Wi-Fi uses the 2.4 GHz radio frequency, Super Wi-Fi uses lower frequency TV radio signals — 54MHz to 698 MHz —  which travel farther and propagate more effectively over hills and around obstacles such as trees. Maximum range for the signals appears to be about six miles, with a maximum speed around 10Mbps.

surfing-wifiThe result, at least today, is Internet access for 15,000 students and faculty who use the university’s public transit and any other students within range of campus transit stations. Further expansion of the network is likely — perhaps even to the rest of the state, never mind the university. West Virginia is very rural, and providing high-speed Internet access to widely separated homes has been an issue.

“You don’t need special equipment to access Super WiFi,” AIR.U cofounder Bob Nichols told me. The long-haul wireless transfer to transit stations and shelters is done via Super WiFi, but the local connection to students’ laptops is standard WiFi.

“We … look forward to expanding this last-mile wireless solution all across West Virginia,” West Virginia Broadband Council chairperson Dan O’Hanlon said in a statement.

In some cases, Super Wi-Fi has been described as taking space between operating TV station’s frequencies — the so-called white space spectrum. However, this current launch occupies TV channel space that is simply vacant; there are no TV stations broadcasting on those frequencies.

“Super Wi-Fi presents a lower-cost, scalable approach to deliver high-capacity wireless networks,” Nichols said. “We’re looking to approach the surrounding county about this, and other applications for remote communities are possible.”

If that continues to prove to be true, it’s likely we’ll see more Super Wi-Fi networks built out in universities and rural areas in the months to come.


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