RADFORD -- The time may be coming when a New River Valley resident can open a laptop in the middle of town and immediately be on the Internet.
Something called "mesh networks" is seen as the architecture that will let communities offer this service. These allow data to jump from one wireless node, mounted on light or utility poles, to another to expand service outward from an initial Internet connection.
Local governments from throughout Southwest Virginia will have a chance to hear about how their communities might use this technology in one of four workshops next week.
The first one will be at 9 a.m. Monday on the Radford University West Campus, the former St. Albans property, and at 1 p.m. in the Grayson Hall Commons at Wytheville Community College.
The other sessions will be at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon and 1 p.m. at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. All sessions have been scheduled through the office of U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon.
The more traditional networks that allow computer users to get onto the Internet in coffeehouses or other places require those users to be near an Internet access point. The mesh networks can spread the connectivity over wider areas, Boucher said Saturday.
Each node represents a point from which a network can be expanded outward, he said. The units themselves are lightweight. "Each one can easily be picked up with one hand," Boucher said.
"It is a low-cost way of providing Internet access for local governments that want to provide that capability to their communities," he said.
Such mesh networks are "how they got phone service restored in New Orleans" after the hurricane disaster, he said.
"I think that local governments in the area should be providing wireless Internet access throughout the region," Boucher continued. "It is a quality of life enhancement. It is an economic development tool."
Towns can often charge less to make the service available than Internet service providers can, he said. "Some communities provide it for free. And what we're doing is making our local governments aware of this new generation of technology."
The technology has its limitations, he said. It operates at a higher frequency, which allows greater bandwidth, but has less penetrating capability than the lower-frequency bandwidth of Internet service providers. So businesses and others who want to be certain of Internet accessibility at all times will probably stick with the commercial providers, Boucher said.
Radford is not using mesh technology, but has started a pilot project to provide broadband Internet access to some 200 Hunters Ridge Apartments residents. If the project works as expected, City Manager Tony Cox said, it eventually will be expanded citywide, offering broadband hookups to all residents.
Radford has its own electric system and can mount the required units on its own poles. The city is working with Designed Telecommunications of Salem and Radford University on the project.
The regional New River Valley Telecommunications Committee heard a report Friday from Jim Sandidge, its chairman and also technology director with the Pulaski County school system, on an Appalachian Regional Commission grant to help provide wireless Internet access across Claytor Lake to the Snowville School.
"I can stand on the Draper Valley Golf Course and Google," he said.
The committee has been working for years to bring broadband Internet service to the New River Valley, following a survey in which a number of businesses said they needed it.
Private providers such as Citizens in Floyd have extended broadband service. The committee is also looking at other existing links like the new wireless authority in Pulaski County and the Radford initiative to incorporate into the overall program.
"At least we have a wireless authority in place, which could be morphed into this thing we've been talking about for so long," Sandidge said. "There's just a ton of work to be done, and all in everybody's spare time."