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New mobile broadband unit could bring better internet coverage to a northeast Washington county

Courtesy of Washington State University
This mobile unit will allow firefighters and others to send and receive information in areas that are now not available to wireless technology.

WSU, UW and others hope this will help first responders communicate while they're working in remote areas.

One of the least wired places in Washington is Ferry County, where the remote, mountainous terrain makes getting a reliable broadband signal an adventure, especially for firefighters out in the field.

“They have nothing and it can take hours to get maps, weather updates, and firefighters are in harm’s way," said Trevor Lane from the Washington State University Extension program in Ferry County. He and local officials have worked for years to patch together wireless networks that provide better broadband in their area.

With a grant from Microsoft and help from faculty and students from WSU and the University of Washington, they’ve developed a portable, mobile broadband unit. They unveiled it Tuesday and Steve Bonner from the Ferry County Emergency Management office was there.

“This device is capable of being towed anywhere a pickup could go. We can get it into areas and set up the communications that we can use in all kinds of situations," he said.

Situations such as fires, floods, other disasters.

“We can park this unit out where we can actually view what’s happening around. Say we have a hillside that’s burning and we can put a camera on that and, in real time from anywhere in the world right now, access what that camera’s viewing with their tablet or their computer or their smartphone," Bonner said.

The trailer unit has solar power and backup generator. It’s designed to operate independently for a month or more under its own power.

Students from the UW and WSU’s Vancouver campus helped to build the unit and install it in Ferry County. This is considered version 2.0. It’s better than the initial prototype, but not the final version, said Xinghui Zhao, the director of WSU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science.

“I see this not only for enabling internet connection, but for all the cutting edge technology, big data, mission learning, A-I, all of these rely on connection. You need to be connected in order to run all those applications. So I think this will enable all of those for the underserved population, so I think it’s great," she said.

Zhao believes this will not only benefit first responders in Ferry County, but could also be an economic development tool there.

Trevor Lane from WSU Extension sees this as a prototype to be exported to other rural areas.

“What we’re going to do is make this open source so that people can replicate, customize, modify. So the inventory list, all the programming and coding that runs the solar panels, the propane. This thing can be accessed and managed and monitored remotely so all of this information and designs will be publicly available,” he said.

That could be big news for the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have access to reliable, high-speed internet service. There are also plans to miniaturize this self-contained internet unit so that it can be carried in backpacks into areas that aren’t accessible by vehicles.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.