WHIN Testifies to U.S. Congress

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

WHIN was recently asked to share details of our aerostat project, as well as some of the other innovative ways we are trying to accelerate connectivity and digitization, with the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture during the first session of the 117th congress. Johnny testified on behalf of WHIN, and shared details of how our project might be a model for others around the country, as well as the value of a nonprofit addressing the broadband divide. WHIN was very well-received by the representatives, and we were proud to be able to share our work as inspiration and a potential model for others around the country.

Good morning. I am Johnny Park, the CEO of the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network, or WHIN. I would like to thank Chairman Scott, Ranking Member Thompson and the Committee for the opportunity to speak with you today.

This invitation came about after a recent conversation we had with Congressman Baird. We shared that we recently had a successful test flight of a unique technology called the Aerostat to serve rural broadband needs in our ten county region in Indiana. He was struck by how valuable such alternative technologies could be to helping solve the digital divide. He asked us to share that story with you.

WHIN is not an Internet Service Provider, and broadband is not our primary business. In fact, we are a 501c3 community organization and our overarching goal is to build a regional ecosystem that can help our rural region attract globally competitive businesses to plant and grow in the Wabash Heartland.

Towards that goal, our principal strategy has been to accelerate the adoption of digital technology in our region, especially digital agriculture and smart manufacturing. As you might expect in Indiana, agriculture and manufacturing are mainstays of our rural economy.

We began to develop our region as a very large Living Laboratory for IoT. Very simply, we introduce innovative and vetted commercial and near commercial technology into the region, incentivize the local farmers and manufacturers to accelerate the adoption, and drive innovation from the real-usage of technology.

And it is working. After just over 2 years, many farmers and manufacturers of all sizes in our region have adopted various technologies that they had not used before.

But the spotty and inconsistent connectivity in our rural region was hindering our efforts, not to mention limiting all kinds of economic development and quality of life as we all know. Which brings us to broadband. We began to recognize that we can approach broadband with the same Living Lab model. That is, we introduce innovative, highly impactful technology, put it to real use, and drive innovation from real usage by sharing results so that solutions can be improved.

As a first step, WHIN is launching an aerostat, developed by RTO Wireless, headquartered in Massachusetts. WHIN’s aerostat is an 80-foot tethered balloon that is approved by the FAA to fly 1,500 feet from a farm field in White County, Indiana. It is tethered with fiber connection, and it has a payload capacity of 200 lbs, that allows it to carry multiple wireless communication devices. Our single aerostat is expected to have a 50-mile radius coverage with LoRaWAN, which is a network protocol suitable for IoT sensor connectivity. For high-speed internet, we will utilize CBRS, which is going to take some testing, but we expect it to provide high-speed broadband within a radius of 10-15 miles.

The aerostat has many features that make it very attractive for rural broadband. Its transmissions are low latency. Aerostats can be deployed typically in 3-5 months from start to providing services. It’s cost effective. It has excellent line-of-sight, solving the problem of difficult terrain and barriers that traditional solutions can’t reach. It functions well in high winds. Environmentally, the aerostat is quite friendly, as there are no engines, just Helium and the tether.

You might wonder how WHIN’s network will be put to real use as we are not an ISP. Our network is a resource that will be available to any ISP or WISP in the region who wants to use it to better serve their own customers or attract new customers. Note that this is actually a way to accelerate adoption of state-of-the-art broadband in our region: that is always our main goal. We are using innovation to close gaps quickly.

How can this model help you? We know that with the very large expenditures proposed and already made for rural broadband, you would prefer to get it right the first time. But technology evolves quickly and so does the need in the marketplace. And while innovation is necessary, it adds uncertainty and complexity. WHIN’s Living Lab is a model for taking out some of that risk by testing and validating novel solutions in real conditions. We suggested to Congressman Baird that setting aside a portion of rural broadband funding for innovation and for models of advancing innovation, could help solve the digital divide sooner and more cost effectively.

Thank you for your time today. We deeply appreciate your hard work on behalf of rural America.