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NHCo. Launches White Space Network

Harry Taylor Photography
N.C. Arts Council
Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel in Airlie Gardens. With the county's launch of the white space network, New Hanover residents can access public Wi-Fi at Airlie Gardens, Hugh MacRae Park, and, soon, Veterans Park.

New Hanover County made history this week as it became the first place in the world to launch commercial use of the television broadcasting spectrum called white space.

Back in 2008 when the county pioneered the switch to digital television, it freed up analog channels, exactly where this network operates.

As WHQR's Sara Wood reports, white space will eventually revolutionize wireless technologies.

It’s known as white space, and it has the capacity to provide you with Wi-Fi that has a gym membership. . . and uses it. Because it exists at a lower frequency, it's able to penetrate buildings, trees and hills. It's unlicensed, experimental, cheaper than 4G. And it travels miles farther with little set-up, an FCC approved radio device with an antenna.

Leslie Chaney is IT director for New Hanover County. She’s on her way to Airlie Gardens, one of the county’s three official white space sites.

For the past 2 years with the FCC's blessing, the county has been working with a few private companies to test the network in a number of ways. In addition to Airlie, it also launched in Hugh MacRae Park. Veterans Park is not far behind.

It’s a quiet morning at Airlie: birds, sun, the scent of camellias lingering for what seem like miles. White space signals also travel for miles, providing residents with Wi-Fi access and the county with the ability to network security cameras.

In Airlie Gardens, those cameras are used for a live feed so anyone can watch the park from their computer or smart phone anywhere in the world.

Without white space, connecting Airlie to Wi-Fi would have cost a fortune and been impossible without digging up the ground to trench wires. Lush oaks would block signals.

Jim McDaniel, the county’s director of parks and recreation, says white space alleviates all of these problems.

“Imagine now being able to look out and not see a bunch of wires hanging. It's a great story of recycling, we're taking an element that already existed; we're finding a better and a new use for it. At the same time, hopefully we'll be cleaning our environment up as well.”

The county proposed testing white space in certain areas where wiring gets complicated and expensive, like monitoring water quality in fragile wetlands and setting up surveillance cameras to gather traffic data on evacuation routes and in neighborhoods with high crime rates. Again, Leslie Chaney:

“We have provided a means to not only fill some of our needs, but to show that this is a usable technology that's not going to interfere with broadcasters who were worried about that so we can open up the free enterprise to come up with more devices and move that into rural America.”

Without wires and expensive network rates, there’s a lot of possibility here at Airlie, but even more so for rural America. There are more open channels in smaller towns, more white space, meaning the technological playing field for these communities could finally be leveled.

“You get far off the major interstate and there's not enough density of customers to justify the investment, for some of those companies. So if there is a different technology available there may be those innovators who see that and jump in there and offer a service.”

Many of those potential innovators were in Wilmington for the official launch event to see how the county has integrated the network so they may spark new developments and applications. Kind of like the World's Fair.

“But it's a little more arcane type of World's Fair than seeing people in flying cars. But it's. . . yeah, you can say that.”

Bill Seiz works for TV Band Services, a company integrating this network. He says this region of the county was the ideal launch site.

“Wilmington's a perfect test bed, not only due to it's White Space characteristics, it's also great for demographics, it's also got a range of different geographic opportunities, it's probably one of the reasons the FCC chose it for the DTV transition, it just makes perfect sense.

Seiz says while this is all very exciting, it’s the very beginning, a toe in the water. For the next several months as New Hanover slowly integrates white space, the FCC will watch to see what happens, and developers, governments and mobile companies will eye the possibility of providing access to other pockets of the nation. 

Seiz says the rest of the country could see development spread by the end of the year, as Congress hashes out the future of the spectrum and whether or not it will be auctioned off to private companies like Google and AT&T.

But for now, among the azaleas and camellias at Airlie, enjoy the soothing sounds of checking your email.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the WHQR News Team.