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College hatches business to measure airwaves: Big wireless firms flocking to one-of-a-kind database

February 27, 2006

Ball State University has created what could be a moneymaking venture to help the nation's wireless providers find dead spots in their signal footprints even before they put up the first towers.

The university's Office of Wireless Research and Mapping said it has at least $720,000 in tentative contracts from businesses and government agencies.

"My hope is, in two or three months, we have a fully operational center that is going to be recognized nationally," said Bizhan Nasseh, a Ball State computer science professor who is director of the OWRM.

The Muncie university started building its signal database as part of broader research into wireless broadband under its "Digital Middletown" project.

Ball State researchers had been working with software that displays land contours, which affect the way signals propagate. Then they started talking with a Lithuanian firm, Hnit-Baltic, that made sophisticated software to measure radio signals.

Researchers combined the two pieces of software and started feeding it with detailed data such as the type of pavement in a given area.

The signal footprint shows up as a three-dimensional graphic resembling a giant mushroom. The effects of various land features contort that signal.

"As we learn more, as our information database gets updated, we can say, 'There's asphalt there; there's cement there. What does that do to the character of the radio signal?'" said O'Neal Smitherman, vice president for information technology at Ball State. "We can tell you what you can get during snowstorms and during the summer, when leaves are on the trees."

It wasn't long before some of the wireless firms the university worked with on Digital Middletown saw the value of the database.

"They said, 'Look, this is a fantastic business opportunity. Why don't you start a company to do that?'" Nasseh said.

Nasseh's OWRM won't spin off from the university anytime soon, but it's fielding work from firms eager to take advantage of what it offers. A regional office of Verizon asked Ball State to map part of Vermont, for example. Nasseh's experts also began negotiating with Digital Bridge Communications LLC, an Ashburn, Va.-based wireless broadband provider headed by former Verizon executive Kelley Dunne.

"You have the opportunity to identify where people live and whether they can be served or not. This allows you to pinpoint and micro-market where you provide service," Dunne said.

For instance, if a potential customer called a wireless company to inquire about service, a customer service representative could enter into a computer the person's phone number to see if the customer could receive a signal. The data could be so specific that the wireless provider could tell the customer he or she would have to mount an external antenna to pull in a signal, Smitherton said.

Beyond helping wireless providers to better target new service, it also allows them to maximize the placement of their towers, Nasseh said. Maps could predict how a specific location might receive, say, 2 mbps, instead of the desired 5 mbps.

Therefore, "If you [operate] in Richmond, Ind., you'll need towers in these locations," Smitherton said.

"What [companies] say is compelling about this is it costs them $50 to $250 to roll a truck out to test to see whether they can receive coverage in an area," Smitherton said.

The center's work already has caught the attention of Indianapolis-based Omnicity, which provides wireless broadband service to a number of Indiana towns. Omnicity has begun talks with the center as the company begins to roll out service in Ball State's back yard of Delaware County, said Omnicity CEO Michael Earley.

Smitherton sees big demand for the office's expertise as wireless providers furiously work to provide service to the 80 percent of the country that is not urbanized and already served by wireless.

"Wireless is about the only cost-effective technology. You can't [afford to] run fiber-optic to every farmhouse," Smitherton added.

Meanwhile, the office also is building a database to accommodate "WiMax," a wireless broadband standard likely to gain users with its higher-powered signal that beams data longer distances. The standard got a boost recently when Intel Corp. said it would imbed the technology into its new microprocessors.

Among contracts on the books is a $500,000 deal to develop 100 radio frequency maps annually for a wireless equipment company."


In a perfect world, a wireless signal would extend from a tower in a predictable pattern (top). Software used by Ball State projects how land and other features affect signal (bottom).
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