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January 19. 2014 3:39PM

New initiative

Broadband pioneer starts new initiative at UNH


Scott Valcourt, UNH’s director of strategic technology, recently received an award from Gov. Maggie Hassan for overseeing a project that brought 865 miles of fiber optic cable to New Hampshire residents through Network New Hampshire Now. (COURTESY)

DURHAM — Rouzbeh Yassini has been dreaming about the possibilities for expanded broadband access since before most people understood what broadband was.

In technology circles, he is known as the father of the cable modem for having invented the first one with his startup company, LANCity, which went on to hold as much as 95 percent market share in the cable modem industry in the company’s heyday.

Now Yassini has focused his sights on making broadband accessible to more users through a variety of initiatives, including the new Broadband Center of Excellence at the University of New Hampshire.

In addition to conducting research and publishing reports, the center is able to provide a variety of unique services to businesses, including broadband system and planning, new technology deployment and analysis and cost optimization strategies and methodologies.

One of the center’s first vision papers, authored by Yassini, is titled “Broadband 2020: The Networked Future” and envisions possibilities in education, medicine and science through expanded availability of broadband.

In the paper he also lays out what he feels are the seven top barriers to more users accessing broadband, including availability, adoption, affordability, performance, utilization, ease of use and services, namely, what applications are available that may compel usage and drive improvements in network performance.

“Every citizen has the right to access the broadband,” Yassini said, and his current goal is figuring out how to provide that access.

Television white space

At the end of January, the center will release a 30-page report focused on a study using television “white space” to improve broadband access.

Most Americans used to get their television signals through an antenna on the roof of their home or “bunny ears” on top of their television sets before antennas were replaced with cables wired to people’s homes.

“Cable” television was invented around 1950 and by 1980, most everyone knew about it.
And then along came broadband.

“If you have the available infrastructure you can also do data and voice. That is the description of broadband,” Yassini said.

Yassini and LANCity invented the first cable modem, which joined all the services, in 1986. The first ones sold for about $18,000 and were larger than a typical desktop computer. Now, they are the size of a single chip and sell for as little as $30.

Yassini said the problem with broadband is that many people were left behind.

“There are only 2 billion people with access. The other 6 billion people don’t. What happened?” Yassini said.

That question is what led him to start the Broadband Center of Excellence.

He said New Hampshire is the perfect place to locate a center because the state is not unfamiliar with the challenges of providing broadband access to all residents.

In Berlin, for example, Comcast has chosen not to install cable lines because the customer base is not large enough.

Additionally, in places where broadband service is available, many people cannot afford it, or simply do not want it, Yassini said.

For people with no access to any type of broadband service, Yassini said television white space is a haven.

“Anybody that has never felt or experienced the power of broadband, I want them to know TV white space is that hope,” Yassini said.

He said it is a “God-given” frequency, owned by the public that has the ability to transmit quality signals over long distances, and is a technology that is relatively inexpensive to develop.

It is also universally available around the globe.

“Everybody has TV spectrum and can have access to it,” Yassini said.

Television white space in essence takes a Wi-Fi signal and stretches it over a longer distance, he explained, up to 10 miles for example.

Since the federal government has begun forcing users to go digital, there is more television frequency available for public use, Yassini said, but there is also significant corporate interest in purchasing the frequencies.

He said keeping the frequencies available for public use has many public benefits. He said a nationwide service could notify people quickly of an emergency situation.

After receiving a grant, the center began a pilot program in August on campus using TV white space. Stoke Hall was used as a tower for the transmitter, and antennas are strategically located in buildings around campus, including Yassini’s office in the Dimond Library.

They have studied whether the signal interferes with mobile phone service, whether the speed of the service is good enough, and whether it works well at all times of day and in all kinds of weather, among other things.

There would still be user fees using TV white space technology, but they would be less because the infrastructure costs so much less, Yassini said.

He said it is not a replacement for existing services, but fills a gap.

Making connections

Scott Valcourt serves as the director of strategic technology for the UNH Information Technology Department and recently helped the state with a three-year grant focused on linking all 10 counties in the state through broadband connections.

The $62 million federally funded grant project brought 865 miles of fiber-optic cabling, linking together all of the UNH cooperative extension sites in each county, as well as all of the University System of New Hampshire sites and Community College of New Hampshire sites.

All of that is also connected to the NH Fastroads, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., which has connected close to 220 community anchor institutions in 22 towns, and has brought fiber to homes in two census block groups, one in Enfield and one in Rindge.

“This grant started on July 1, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 31, 2013, and its purpose was to construct and put out into the field these broadband assets. Done. The question now is ’what do we do next,’” Valcourt said.

That is where the Broadband Center of Excellence comes in.

“The BCoE is interested in looking at and examining from an academic, business and community perspective all these new technologies that have a relationship to broadband,” Valcourt said.He said the TV white space pilot program is an example of a great next generation kind of opportunity to provide access in geographically challenged areas.

“This wireless connectivity method might be another way to do that,” Valcourt said.

He said the BCoE will also become a place where anybody, including legislators, can find good, technical, academically focused and unbiased information about how the technology works.

More information about the center, including links to Yassini’s vision papers, is available by visiting www.unhbcoe.org.

gmacalaster@newstote.com