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September 1998


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Tech Buys Wireless Spectrum to Develop Research Testbed

BTA mapVirginia Tech recently licensed the broadcast rights to the newly available 1150-megahertz radio band for four business trading areas: Roanoke, Martinsville, Danville, and Bristol. The shaded areas show the region covered by the license. Tech is developing a testbed and is undertaking technical and business research to speed the use of the spectrum in rural and mountainous areas.


This past spring, Virginia Tech became the only university in the nation to own a section of the wireless high bandwidth radio spectrum, thanks to successful participation in the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) first Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS) auction.

Tech purchased the license to operate in the 1150-megahertz wireless spectrum for the greater Roanoke, Martinsville, Danville, and Bristol areas.

This spectrum is often called "cellular cable" because of its very broad bandwidth. With LMDS it is possible to transmit 8,000 high-density color photographs per second; provide Internet access at 100 times current modem rates; or carry more than 200 video channels simultaneously. LMDS is also highly localized and can be customized for each local area.

Tech will use the spectrum to develop a research testbed for advanced wireless telecommunications with particular emphasis on rural regions of the country. The Center for Wireless Telecommunications (CWT) is coordinating most of the research efforts involved, while the University's Communications Network Services (CNS) group is responsible for overall deployment.


LMDS Potential

According to researchers involved in the effort, the potential of LMDS is far greater than just high-speed wireless Internet access. "With this bandwidth, you can get into distance learning, telecommuting, telemedicine, business and professional television, video conferencing at high-speed data rates, and interconnecting to metropolitan area LANs," said Charles Bostian, CWT's director. "LMDS can involve anything that requires the transmission of digital information," he added.

The types of projects currently being explored include connecting local schools and municipalities to the evolving Internet; connecting remote medical facilities to the Internet and imagery resources; testing wireless Internet commerce applications; developing a regional Southern Appalachian capability for testing wireless; and exploring the use of broadband wireless for intelligent highway applications.

Various transmission designs are under investigation, including traditional wireless cable broadcast, cellular-like structures, modular and networked structures, and special-use point to point transmission.

"The broadband spectrum has great potential - even with existing fiber optic and TV cable," said George Morgan, Crestar Professor of Finance, who is heading up CWT's LMDS program. "Fiber optic cable capacity is available as 'fiber to the neighborhood' - but it's very expensive to go farther. It's called the 'last mile' problem. If we can use wireless technology for the last-mile connection to the home or business, digital transmission costs can be more affordable for everybody. This is one reason that wireless is becoming a key technology for local area networks," he continued.


Research Challenges

Although the demand is increasing for such wireless capabilities, the equipment and technology needed for economic use in rural communities is not yet available. "This is the technology that Virginia Tech intends to develop," Morgan said.

"The issues that need to be resolved are technical, financial, and political," he said. He outlined some of the technical issues, including line-of-sight in rugged terrain, rain fade, and antenna range. However, solving the technical challenges leads to financial and business issues, including the cost of development, end-user costs, pricing, what markets to serve, and whether to be a wholesaler or retailer of service. "Then there are the questions of how to fund the development costs - through local governments or federal funds? What is the effect on the economic development of a region? How can public-private partnerships be structured to provide the most effective infrastructure for businesses and citizens' communications needs?"


Virginia Tech Goals

Virginia Tech's goals for the LMDS program relate to both the research and public service missions of the University. "Our main goal is to demonstrate the technical and business viability of using the spectrum for rural areas with difficult topography, density, and meteorology," Bostian said.

"The work we are undertaking is ideal for a University like ours," he said. "We can take on the long-term research to fully develop the use of the spectrum."

Bostian noted that Tech was the only organization to bid on the four basic trading areas it purchased. "Without Tech's participation in this project, these areas would have to forego for some time the opportunity to develop this important economic development tool."

The Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, November 22 1998
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