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Nation's first white spaces network goes live in rural Virginia

Claudville — a 900-person town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia — has become the site of the nation's first white spaces broadband Internet network.

The network runs on an unused television channel. The mountainous terrain in the area has made traditional broadband service hard to obtain. Plus the area is poor, with a countywide per capita income of $15,574.

County supervisor Jonathan Large testified before Congress last April, lamenting the region's lack of broadband Internet connectivity. He testified that it hurt both education and the jobs market in the region.

“Students need the capability to connect via high-speed Internet to do research or complete course assignments from their homes,” he testified. “The schools simply cannot provide enough computers simultaneously for all the students who want to use them at school. If the county has any hope of recruiting new companies to the area, high-speed Internet connectivity is an inherent demand to be met. If it is not available, they will not come.”

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, said his office helped to arrange the trial rollout of white spaces broadband service for Claudville.

Spectrum Bridge, a service provider, set up a white spaces link to the center of town, where the signal was fed to traditional WiFi routers at the local school and a cafe. The FCC has not finalized white spaces broadband, however, so special permission was needed to do the trial project. Dell and Microsoft contributed equipment and software.

Because the system operates in the TV band, white space devices must query a channel database before transmitting to make sure they don't accidentally transmit over a frequency currently being used by a TV station or a wireless microphone. The FCC requires such a database, but has yet to certify one. Spectrum Bridge used a preliminary database of its own for the project.

Temporarily, the trial system uses white spaces as a backhaul network rather than as a means to connect homes and businesses directly to the Internet. In the future, Spectrum Bridge hopes to use the technology to expand connectivity directly to homes and businesses. Until white spaces radios are ready for deployment, the technology works better when linked to Ethernet or WiFi.