THURMAN -- The town could be at the cutting edge of a broadband revolution in a matter of months, and become a proving ground for the future of rural Internet access.
A local Internet firm has proposed testing state-of-the-art white space technology in Thurman, which is largely devoid of broadband Internet access.
"If it works, it puts Thurman and Athol on the national map as one of the first dozen installs," said Fred Engelmann, president of the Chestertown-based networking firm Rainmaker Network Service, LLC. "It has great promise everywhere, not just here."
The Federal Communications Commission approved technology in late December that allows Internet signals to be carried in white space, the unused spectrums between television stations. The system creates pockets of wireless broadband connectivity.
"Unleashing white spaces spectrum has the potential to exceed even the many billions of dollars in economic benefit from WiFi," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski when announcing the approval.
White space is similar to WiFi technology, but is widely considered better-suited to rural areas because the signal isn't impeded by trees, buildings or even mountains, the FCC reports.
Microsoft began testing white space technology last summer throughout England.
A handful of U.S. communities are jumping on board with the concept and planning to seek the required FCC experimental license when the agency's approval takes effect on Jan. 26.
"People here really need it," Thurman Supervisor Evelyn Wood said of broadband access.
Internet access in Thurman is primarily limited to slower dialup-based systems.
Local, state and federal officials have for years struggled to find ways to bring broadband access to the Adirondacks.
Ava Ashendorff, team leader of Congressman Chris Gibson's local citizens advisory committee said she reached out to Engelmann after Verizon Wireless showed little interest in the area.
"We as local people, without big corporate interests, feel we can help Thurman a lot," she said.
Ashendorff said the project could be largely funded with private donations. Town officials, though, have asked state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, about state funding possibilities.
Wood said estimates place the project's costs at about $18,000 for the Athol-based trial.
The Adirondack Park's mountains and valleys impede line-of-sight technology and its low population density has thus far stymied large-scale investment. A converter can be added to the white space system to generate cellular hotspots.
The FCC has been pushing white space technology since 2004. The FCC proposal received more than 25,000 comments in 2008. Broadcasting companies opposed the move to allow unlicensed users into their medium.
Federal regulators approved opening up white space in 2010, but not the technology required to access the vacant frequencies. December's FCC decision makes the medium accessible to unlicensed and experimental users, or small networking firms.
Area officials have described fiber optic technology as the prime mover of the region's 21st century economy.
But, while fiber optic lines may bring the signal into a community, they don't bring it to a customer's doorstep.
The white space signal, stemming from existing fiber optic lines serving nearby cell towers, could extend by as much as five times the signal area of WiFi, Engelmann said. Connection speeds of around 10 MBps are expected from the regional hotspot that would be created.
"Does it really travel 6 miles? We really don't know," Engelmann said. "What better place than Thurman to find out?"
Engelmann's proposal would set up a temporary test site in Athol. The system could be expanded, and become permanent, if successful.
The project would also require an agreement with a local cell carrier for use of the required fiber optic lines.
Town officials are remaining cautiously optimistic.
"We have 135 people on a spreadsheet here saying they want service," Wood said.
The Town Board has scheduled a Jan. 25 public hearing to gauge public interest.