air u+rural broadbandBroadband wireless communications based on TV white spaces technology should get a boost from an initiative announced today by a consortium of higher education associations, public interest groups and high-tech companies.

The initiative, dubbed AIR.U, aims to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to university communities in rural areas that currently lack high-speed broadband. The initiative has the backing of industry heavyweights Microsoft and Google, as well as 500 higher education institutes and Gig U, a similar initiative that aims to bring landline broadband at speeds up to 1 Gbps to university communities in less rural areas. Other participants include the New America Foundation think tank, the United Negro College Fund, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, as well as Declaration Networks Group, LLC, a newly created organization established to plan, deploy and operate white spaces technologies.

“We anticipate moving rapidly in the next couple of weeks,” said Rob Nichols, an executive with Declaration Networks in an interview. The goal he said is to promptly select communities for a pilot test of the technology, which would be funded by participants in the initiative, with networks targeted for rollout in the first quarter of 2013.

AIR.U came about, in part, because of Gig U, said Nichols. Gig U organizers, he said, received a lot of inquiries from colleges and universities in rural areas who said they would be happy to get even 10 Mbps service.

AIR.U is somewhat different from Gig U, however, in that Gig U did not provide funding to its high-speed communities but instead expects participating universities and communities to come up with funding on their own. Gig U’s role was primarily to act as a coordinator and aggregator of best practices.

Eventually AIR.U also may move more toward that sort of model, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, in an interview.

“Most likely there will be a number of different models,” said Calabrese. Eventually some universities may invest in white spaces technology to blanket the surrounding community, he said. He also foresees the possibility of partnerships involving municipalities, counties or non-government organizations. In addition, he said, “there could be some purely commercial business models.”

I asked Nichols if he saw any uncertainty in the future of white spaces, now that legislators have voted to auction off some television broadcast spectrum. He said the FCC will be responsible for creating a band plan and that it can create guard bands that would be available for white spaces use on an unlicensed basis.  In addition, he said he does not believe the FCC will auction off any spectrum below channel 37 — and because there are few broadcasters operating below channel 37 in rural areas, there should still be plenty of spectrum available for Air U participants.

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