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A giant radio telescope, a small school and a Wi-Fi problem

Students at a tiny Appalachian public school can't use Wi-Fi because any such network can throw the radio equivalent of a monkey wrench into a gigantic super-sensitive radio telescope just up the road.

Green Bank Elementary/Middle School is located just over half a mile away from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. The NRAO says the 17 million-pound telescope is the most advanced of its kind in the world, boasting 2 acres of surface area which it uses to collect radio signals from around the cosmos. The facility studies everything from pulsars to the formation of stars to the movement of gigantic gas clouds in distant galaxies.

[MORE SCIENCE: NASA: Feb. 15 asteroid fly-by will buzz Earth closer than many satellites]

However, the GBT's extraordinary sensitivity means that it's very susceptible to human-generated radio interference, according to site interference protection engineer Carla Beaudet.

"If there was no dirt between us and the transmitter, a typical access point ... would have to be on the order of 1,000,000 km [more than 620,000 miles, or about two and a half times the distance from the Earth to the Moon] distant to not interfere. Fortunately, we have mountains around us which provide lots of attenuation, so we're not seeing everything from everywhere," she said in an email to Network World.

A standard Wi-Fi access point would wipe out a significant range of usable frequencies for the observatory.

"It simply ruins the spectrum for observations from 2400-2483.5MHz and from 5725-5875MHz for observational purposes," wrote Beaudet.

The Appalachian Mountains, coupled with the fact that the GBT is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, mean that it's largely protected from the radio emissions of, say, Washington, D.C., located 150 miles to the east. The quiet zone's rules and regulations strictly regulate all radio transmissions, allowing both the GBT and a highly restricted NSA facility nearby to operate their ultra-sensitive gear.

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Tiny Green Bank Elementary/Middle School - located just over half a mile down the road from the facility - is another story, however.

The school, with its enrollment of 261, is in a tough position. Though quiet zone rules ban it from using Wi-Fi due to its proximity to the GBT, the rest of the schools in Pocahontas County are planning a move to digital textbooks in the next academic year. Moreover, the state of West Virginia will move to an online-only standardized aptitude test the year after that, which will also require Internet access for each student.

Pocahontas County Schools technology coordinator Ruth Bland worries that the district simply doesn't have the resources to cope.

"Short of wiring every classroom to have at least 25 drops and a laptop for every student, we will have a very difficult time providing digital textbooks or access to take the testing. The drops will require quite a number of switches and miles of cabling. All very costly," she says.

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Green Bank Elementary/Middle has a strong and long-standing relationship with the scientific facility up the road - the NRAO installed Cat-5 cable throughout the school years ago, and Beaudet says the organization provides as much support as possible.

Bland - who is also a former principal at Green Bank - has nothing but praise for the role played by the NRAO in helping to educate the school's students.

"They're world-class. They have been absolutely wonderful to Green Bank school," she says.

Pocahontas County is far from wealthy. Data from the 2010 census indicates that 15.3% of the 8,719 people living there are below the poverty line, and the median household income is a little less than $34,000.

Bland says the school district needs help, either from state legislators or from elsewhere.

"It'd be wonderful if a major corporation would come down and take us under their wing," she says.

Spokesperson Liza Cordeiro told Network World that the West Virginia Department of Education is aware of the issue, and that discussions with the school and the county have taken place.One potential solution is approaching the federal government for additional monies to address the issue, she said.

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There is a technological solution to the problem in the pipeline - 802.11ad, a next-gen wireless standard that uses 60GHz frequencies to send and receive information, instead of the usual 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. At 60GHz, according to Beaudet, radio energy essentially just bounces off the atmosphere - meaning that the frequency is useless to the Green Bank Telescope in the first place. Signals to and from 802.11ad access points, then, would have no effect on the work taking place at the GBT, allowing for the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, 802.11ad is very much a technology of the future, not of the present - experts at an Interop New York panel last year predicted that devices using the standard wouldn't hit the market until 2014.

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The issue could be moot just three years after that, however - a report from the National Science Foundation recommended that the group pull funding for the GBT by 2017. Naturally, however, this is an ideal solution for neither party.

Beaudet emphasized that it's far from certain that the GBT will be shutting down.

"We are currently seeking other sponsors for the instrument, and other arrangements with NSF. Everything is up in the air right now. But GBT is not the only instrument on the Green Bank site (just our main one). ... I don't think we're going away soon," she wrote.

For the moment, then, it's an apparently intractable problem - but one that both the school and the scientists are eager to solve.

Email Jon Gold at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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