Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the Episode 79 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Don Means on libraries and white spaces. Listen to this episode here.
Don Means: ... eighty million people. This is a huge population that depends on library broadband.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
In this episode, Christopher Mitchell connects with Don Means, Coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network. This past summer, GLN implemented a pilot project to improve access to library Wi-Fi. Each community submitted ideas designed to use white space spectrum to extend the reach of the library's Wi-Fi. White space spectrum was traditionally used to send television signals. But digital television changed all that. As a result, white space spectrum has been freed up. The six communities chosen for the pilot project are living laboratories. As Don notes in the interview, local entities, such as libraries, are the perfect place for experimentation. This pilot project will help us learn to push the envelope on white space technology. In addition to providing better access to their local communities, these library experiments are helping us learn the limits of the approach. Here are Don and Chris, talking about the Gigabit Libraries Network's white space pilot project.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with Don Means, the Coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network. Welcome to the show, Don.
Don Means: Thank you, Chris.
Chris: Don, I guess -- I think a good question to start off with would be, you know, who are you and why do you love libraries so much?
Don: It's not a trick question, Chris?
Chris: Certainly not.
Don: The Gigabit Libraries Network is an initiative that grew out of the Fiber-to-the-Library project, which we initiated in '07 -- the idea that connecting all of the nation's sixteen thousand plus libraries with next-generation broadband as the quickest, least expensive, and certainly most equitable way to deliver that kind of capability in every community. It's dawned on us as the most efficient approach to build-out and as a way to serve the greatest number of people. I think it's always amazing to get reactions from people when they hear how many people access the Internet at a library. That number is something around eighty million people, a fourth of the entire population! This is a huge population that depends on library broadband. And most libraries report having inadequate bandwidth to support user demand. And that's a mix, of course, of both fixed workstations in the libraries combined with open Wi-Fi hotspots. I think 90 percent of the libraries are supposed to offer Internet access through Wi-Fi. So we've been working that, and working with others towards that general goal, and to advocate for connectivity to anchor institutions, to serve the greatest number of people.
Chris: Aside from the fact that almost every community has a library, and are familiar with it, and it has this historical roll in the community, you know, are there other reasons why a library should play this role?
Don: Well, sure. You know, this is a kind of a running debate -- is what -- you know, what is a library? What should a library be? What is a library in the digital era? And they remain extremely popular, with 55-60 percent of the general population being active library users. You know, holding library cards. This surprises a lot of people, also, that aren't frequent library users. I find that a lot of technologists just don't get libraries -- saying, well, if I've got a question, I Google it. And if I want a book, I'm one click at Amazon. So, you know, what's the point? Well, this is not the general view, I should say.
Chris: Right. I would say that it may have been the view of some of my friends, who are -- we're the sort of the edge of digital natives, maybe. But, you know, as soon as any of them had children, it wasn't very long before they realized one of the really important roles of a library. I mean, they love taking their children there, finding books that they like. They end up finding books that they themselves want. I mean, -- and it's incredible to see how, I think, a library can really help people that have children in particular.
Don: It's key. And I think most young parents' strategies for introducing their children to the world of reading and literature -- And also culture. I mean, libraries are -- they're definitely under pressure, as, I think, every institution is under pressure, because of the changes that digital technology have brought to us. Not to mention budgetary pressures in the public sector. But libraries are busy, accommodating the demands for services that people want, and they can do pretty much what their community wants them to do. Unlike the other institutions, which have fairly specific charters -- schools, health facilities, and so forth. Libraries are quintessentially local, and community institutions, and really can be as flexible as their community wants them to be. And playing this role of community center, of community laboratory, which one of the areas which we think has a lot of potential, for libraries to act as early adopters, and kind of testing ground for emerging technologies.
Chris: One of the things that you're working on with libraries is these white spaces -- this idea of a new way of using radio signals to transmit information. Let's start with just a very brief explanation of what the white spaces are, and how you're using them.
Don: So-called TV white spaces are a part of the radio spectrum which has become open, or available, for other uses than traditional TV broadcasts -- this is in the UHF/VHF zones -- because of the conversion to digital TV. So, in this process -- a long process -- the FCC decided that some of this bandwidth would be set aside for unlicensed use -- shared, open use. Which is the way Wi-Fi basically works. Nobody owns Wi-Fi frequencies. The devices -- the radio you acquire -- they just are tuned to those frequencies and it's just a shared range of spectrum. TV white spaces are similar, but they have different properties. It's lower frequency, which means that it has the capability to travel long distances -- you know, miles. And it also has penetrative capabilities, and it can pass through obstructions -- trees, buildings, and even over hills to some extent. So the TV white space project, the library pilot that the Gig Libraries has initiated, is really about how combining these two open, unlicensed technologies -- for which no fees are required and no permissions are required -- how those two can be married together to deliver library Wi-Fi. To deliver that same service -- access to digital services -- through Wi-Fi in remote places. Right now, these tens of millions of people that access the Internet through the library and Wi-Fi have to go to the facility itself. And so this project works by allowing the library to act as a base station, using this TV white space equipment, to then communicate to a number of remote library hotspots -- typically in publicly-accessible places.
This is not about muni Wi-Fi. This is the library using this new technology to extend what is one of their basic services, Wi-Fi access, to more places in their community, to make it more convenient.
Chris: For people who want a little bit more information, I'd recommend going back and looking at Dewayne Hendricks' and my discussions. We talk a lot about different kinds of wireless. And I think you did a great job introducing it. But for people who want to go a little bit deeper, that's a place to jump in.
Now, you've described how the libraries are using this. And what I heard you say is that the libraries aren't trying to blanket the entire community with access. It's more of a targeted kind of deployment. Is that -- am I understanding that correctly?
Don: That is correct, Chris. It may be a facility that is a bit remote. It may be community center. It may actually be a library, that is -- that doesn't have a robust connection. Many libraries are out there running on T1 lines.
Chris: One and a half megabits.
Don: One and a half megabit connections. And white space -- the trade-off of this long-range and penetrative capability -- is that it doesn't carry as much data as higher-frequency wireless. There's a lot of wireless out there. And most of it is line-of-sight. So, two antennas that can actually see each other can transmit data in these higher frequencies at higher data rates. Well, the problem with high frequency is that it is easy to interfere with. So you can't actually see each other -- if you don't have a line-of-sight connection -- then they don't work.
Chris: Which can be really difficult in rural areas, or areas that have a -- you know, the more beautiful areas, where you have rolling hills and things like that.
Don: And distance also. It's limited by distance. So they can't travel that far...
Don: ... as well. So, these are -- this white space is sometimes called beachfront spectrum. It's highly desirable. It's very valuable in the market. And yet the FCC has declared that some of this spectrum will be set aside for this specific use. The process has been going on for, I don't know, as long as ten years. And then, the last few years, these decisions have been made. But the need to certify this equipment, that it doesn't interfere with other, you know, like broadcast devices, has to be proven. And that's what's been going on. And so the technology is generally not quite yet available in the commercial market. So what that's created for us is an opening to run tests -- run trials -- which requires exemptions from the FCC. It started as a conversation in Kansas City, Kansas, where one of their five library branches is a learning library out by a lake. And it's not that far, by direct line -- as the crow flies -- but it's a long way around if you're going to run a wire. And so very expensive to upgrade that. This library is a great place for these virtual field trips, but they only have a T1 connection. So Carol Levers, the librarian there, said what can we do about this one library? So we started talking about wireless solutions. TV white space was just coming out into the news at the time. And said, let's see if we can do an experiment, working with the New America Foundation, and one of the leading vendors. We put a pilot program together, announced it in early May, and had a lot of interest from people. We then went to the vendors -- more vendors -- and asked if they'd be willing to put systems out on a trial basis. Which -- they thought this was a good idea. And so we did an open call-to-participate, the first of July, and had nearly 60 proposals come in, which we sorted through, and accepted six of those by the end of August. Libraries in every region of the country -- in Illinois, in Colorado, in New Hampshire, Kansas, Mississippi, and California. (Did I mention Colorado?) Two of those were statewide consortia, which we didn't really anticipate. But the State Librarian in Kansas proposed a statewide pilot. And we ended up accepting proposals from four libraries in Kansas. So that's the biggest of the pilot groups so far. And those are all in deployment now and running.
Chris: You had six different consortia -- or six different entities, effectively -- and some of those entities had multiple locations within their pilot project.
Don: Yes. And New Hampshire and Kansas were multi-library consortia. The Kansas consortium is not only a consortium of public libraries but of -- partnering with schools and universities -- so-called "K20" librarian white space consortium. And so these are different cases where, for one reason or another, it's advantageous to locate a -- either a base station or a remote at a school or a university, because perhaps it's a superior site -- you know, it has some elevation, or maybe superior backhaul. That was one of the things we were encouraging -- were consortia use. We're strong believers in libraries and librarians, across the different categories, as natural collaborators in a local community. That the school, academic, and public librarians are natural cohorts to help bridge these institutions, you know, for the common goal, in support of life-long learning. So, that wasn't a requirement, but we did provide -- we gave them extra credit where we saw those kind of collaborations.
Similar kind of thing in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where the school district is hosting the base station and delivering connectivity to some of their libraries, that are paying these enormous fees for T1 lines, and able to upgrade those. You know, there's no fees involved in using white space technology. It's just simply some devices that you plug and play. Now, the base station needs to have some kind of backhaul, if you're going to connect to the Internet. And that's usually, you know, a wireline.
Chris: It's nice to have something where you have a known fee, and you don't have to worry that at the end of the first year, you're suddenly going to see your prices skyrocket. Because -- it's kind of, in some ways, like solar energy, where once you put the device on the roof, it collects energy, and you don't have to worry that the price of sunlight is going to go up.
Don: It's interesting you say that, because in a lot of these trials -- and these trials are happening all over the world. But a lot of these trials, they are very remote places, and they are powering these radios with solar panels.
Chris: We just spoke with Matthew Rantanen, in southern California, where he has a wireless network that's powered in many locations by solar arrays.
Don: There you go.
Chris: Yeah. Let me ask you a final question, which is, you know, as you've been in this trial, now, for a little while, has there been any surprises or unanticipated outcomes that you'd like to share with us?
Don: We had a number of surprises. One, we at ourselves for initiating such a project in the middle of summer, around a technology that nobody's ever heard of, and that it had so much interest in it.
Chris: It is ambitious.
Don: Well, we had so much response. And I guess this is just from people who have their -- sort of their ears tuned to things that are happening.
And then the other was that we had this basic idea that the library would be the natural base station, and there would be multiple remotes in their community, to these different places. And not so much that it might be, you know, the reverse -- that the library might be the remote and someone else might be hosting a base station. But the point of that is that what the user sees is library Wi-Fi. We're encouraging all these participants to create a splash page that explains what it is that's happening, and to help the community understand how this is delivered. We're encouraging that.
The other were different ideas for where to locate these remotes. So, one proposal was to, you know, use a post office. There are a lot of rural post offices, which are -- you know, their facilities are secure facilities, with parking lots. You know, the story everybody tells about rural libraries leaving their access points open -- their Wi-Fi hotspots open during the evening -- and people drive over and park outside the building to connect to it. And download their mail, or whatever content. So, why not have places that are more convenient for people to do at least that?
Another idea that we hadn't expected was to put these on bookmobiles. Now, a point to say here is that white space is not currently seen as mobile wireless technology. But a bookmobile is what we would call "nomadic fixed." So it's a movable remote site, but it's stationary at the point where, you know, it's connecting. So, a mobile hotspot -- or a bookmobile -- looks like a killer app. It's just one that has come up.
Chris: And that's one in particular where almost any other solution -- I mean, you certainly could never do a wired solution for that. So almost any other solution would require an ongoing fee, and using a using a licensed spectrum, most likely.
Don: Absolutely. And that's assuming that you could even get, you know, 3G or 4G services out in a particular rural area. And we all know what those kind of services cost. So, yeah, there is not wired solution for a mobile site.
Another mobile application is in the area of disaster preparedness and recovery. The pilot in Mississippi is along the Gulf Coast. And that's what attracted us to their proposal, was that they wanted to create a system that was ready to respond to the "next one," which they know is coming. And having these mobile units that they can employ in the case of a disaster -- it couldn't be more valuable. You know, when you look at it in the future -- oh, well, yeah, everything is fine today, the sun is out. But the day that it hits -- the earthquake, the hurricane, whatever it is -- you really need this kind of communication. Because a lot of it is going to be down. As we saw with Katrina and Sandy. Things just are out. And the things that are left up are overloaded. And the libraries -- this is another role for libraries -- is to be able to play a role in the disaster scenario as a communications and information hub. And even just for charging electricity. You know, your phone, even if your cell system is up. If the lights are out, you have to charge up your devices. So that was another unexpected one, and one we think really has a lot of potential. There's a white space pilot in the Philippines that wasn't set up for this, per se, but given the tragedy that's occurred there, they're now looking to repurpose these white space devices in support of that kind of unpredictable yet inevitable communication need.
Chris: You never know when you need to communicate. But when you do, you really don't want to mess around. You want something that works.
Don: If there's a place you could go within walking distance, to have access to communication, it just would -- you'd pay anything for it.
Chris: Well, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you so much for coming on this show and telling us about this approach, and the white spaces. People like you, that take on these sorts of challenges, don't often get the sort of recognition that you deserve, because somebody has to try out the technology. It's terrific that you've been able to do it with these libraries. And I hope that we see more libraries able to move forward as the technology is commercialized.
Don: Well, thank you, Chris. We think it's the librarians that are the heroes -- that are out there every day providing the widest range of services to everybody -- or, rather, to anybody -- as they say, open to all. And with basically no fees. Of course, this is a social contract that we've made with ourselves. And the libraries are the ones that are delivering it -- or, rather, the librarians. We talk a lot about libraries. And we forget to talk about the people who actually make libraries. And these professionals are -- they're just at the forefront of so many of our important issues, of access, free speech, rights of privacy. And then just being the most accommodating people that anyone is likely to know. And these are the people who really are the unsung people out there. And so our support of them is just a small contribution.
Chris: Well, terrific. We wish you the best of luck on this.
Lisa: You can learn more about the project at giglibraries.net . There's also quite a bit of info at the "white spaces" tag at muninetworks.org . And be sure to check out episode 18 of the Broadband Bits Podcast to listen to more about white spaces from Dewayne Hendricks. E-mail us with questions or ideas for the show. You can write to firstname.lastname@example.org . On Twitter, we are @communitynets. Follow us for up-to-date developments in telecommunications. This show was released on December 31st, 2013. Thank you to the group Haggard Beat for their song, "Lazlo," licensed using Creative Commons. Thank you for listening, and we wish you a happy and peaceful 2014.