Partnership brings internet to homes of schoolchildren
FOREST, Va. (AP) — A Bedford County-based partnership is working with two state school divisions to help test technology that uses television white space — channels not in use on the broadcasting spectrum — to deliver internet service in underserved rural areas.
The SOVA Innovation Center in Forest is rolling out the technology with the Halifax County and Charlotte County school divisions in partnership with Microsoft and a Halifax County nonprofit. The pilot project involves providing free equipment, installation and access to selected educational content on the internet; more than 200 homes with school-age children in the two counties currently have internet access as part of the project, said Bob Bailey, executive director of the SOVA Innovation Center.
TV white space originally acted as a buffer in the days of analog broadcasting to prevent interference. In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission moved to a digital broadcasting format, eliminating the function for which those white space channels were designed.
Instead of running underground wires for internet access, the technology relies on a multidimensional radio antenna and a router at home to provide internet over TV white space from a nearby tower.
“In areas that have low population density, how can you justify putting in infrastructure?” Bailey said. “TV white space, for a variety of reasons, is cost efficient.”
The SOVA Innovation Center is a subsidiary of Adaptrum, a California-based technology company, and is funded jointly by Adaptrum and Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, a nonprofit based in South Boston that works toward expanding internet access to promote economic development in southern Virginia, Bailey said. That partnership was announced in June 2017.
The center joined with an initiative announced by Microsoft and Mild-Atlantic Broadband in May 2017 called the “Southern Virginia Homework Network,” aimed at delivering free broadband internet access at home to students in Charlotte and Halifax counties. The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission awarded the project a $500,000 grant in June, according to a commission news release.
About 50 percent of students in Charlotte and Halifax counties have broadband access at home, according to a Microsoft news release. Charlotte County Public Schools had 1,881 students enrolled in the division during the fall for the 2017-18 school year, while Halifax County Public Schools had 5,101 students enrolled during the fall, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
The Homework Network pilot program reached about 100 homes by June. As of January, the pilot program has provided internet access to educational material to 209 homes in Halifax and Charlotte counties with school-age children, Bailey said.
Bailey said the center has heard from about 1,200 households in Halifax and Charlotte counties with school-age children who expressed an interest in participating.
Of those who have expressed interest, the pilot program currently is working with about 500 households in Halifax and Charlotte counties to identify where the center can install infrastructure to provide the new technology to them, Bailey said, adding another 250 households in the same area are close to an existing tower but are experiencing broadcast issues.
The Homework Network program provides an opportunity for the innovation center to test its white space router technology and equipment, Bailey said. While the technology has long-range and non-line-of-sight capabilities, the center still is finding out specifically its limitations and capabilities. “Long term, when we’ve put that infrastructure in place, people can buy (internet access),” Bailey said.
The SOVA Innovation Center is a tenant in the Center for Energy Research and Education off U.S. 460, which previously was known as the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research and is owned by Liberty University. Bailey said the innovation center has set up the new technology at towers surrounding CERE to help research and development of the project.
Bailey said the center works with the two county school systems’ leaders to decide what educational content to allow the students to access online.
“Schools are updating the list,” Bailey said. “It’s a filter we change all the time.”
Nancy Leonard, superintendent for Charlotte County Public Schools, said the school division has sent home flyers with students to make parents and guardians aware of the program. They plan on sending out more flyers soon.
The school division also has allowed the center to put towers on school property, Leonard said. Currently, the center has 15 towers for the program, Bailey said.
“We’re hoping this pilot program (with) this very unique piece of equipment can unlock some capabilities for other rural localities that may be experiencing difficulty accessing internet services,” Leonard said.