‘Nomadic broadband’ helps rural first responders stay connected

Nathan Davis tests circuits on a prototype mobile broadband unit mounted on a trailer outside a private laboratory and shop.
Designer Nathan Davis tests circuits at a private laboratory and shop in Ferry County, where students and partners have been conducting experiments on nomadic connectivity.

On Tuesday, July 26, a Washington State University Extension team will join county, technology, and tribal partners in the Colville National Forest to demonstrate their prototype mobile broadband unit. 

The nomadic system taps a variety of wireless technologies and unused radio wavelengths to provide high‑speed internet in Washington’s rugged, rural Ferry County, where digital connectivity is the sparsest in the state. In an emergency, that void can leave residents and first responders in the dark.

“Where I live, people are put in harm’s way when they don’t have connectivity,” said Trevor Lane, director of WSU Ferry County Extension and co‑founder of the nomadic broadband project.

Police, firefighters, and other emergency responders increasingly rely on broadband connections, but Ferry County lacks fast, widespread coverage. 

Rugged Ferry County in Washington unfolds in the distance.
Extension educators and partners are testing the nomadic unit in rugged, forested terrain in Ferry County, including areas on and near the Colville National Forest, where several wildfires have burned.

Over the last four years, Lane has partnered with Microsoft, multiple internet service providers, Ferry County agencies, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Declaration Network Group, and the locally based Broadband Action Team for the Colville Confederated Tribes and Ferry County to develop an initial mobile concept, then a prototype.

“The next challenge is to upgrade our first prototype and now publicly show people that this works,” he said.

Powered by a solar panel and a propane-powered generator mounted on a trailer, the unit has enough energy to run for up to 45 days and can go nearly anywhere a vehicle can, creating a hot spot for anyone within range. 

“There’s so much potential for a unit like this,” says Ferry County Emergency Management Director Steve Bonner. He describes the unit as a game-changer for rural responders, who are often strapped for resources and personnel. 

“It can deliver real time, critical information to and from the actual front line of a wildfire or flood,” Bonner said. A video camera mounted to the unit could, for example, show the progress of a fire, enabling responders from a regional operations center to issue a timely evacuation notice.  

The team envisions a smaller unit that could be carried in a backpack, allowing fire or search teams to bring the internet with them into rugged areas.

From classroom to county level

Through a partnership between WSU Extension, WSU Vancouver, and the University of Washington, the nomadic broadband project has provided valuable learning opportunities for students across the state. Undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Computer Science (ENCS) at WSU Vancouver and students from UW’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering developed the system with experts from Microsoft and Ferry County.

Closeup of Xinghui Zhao
Xinghui Zhao

Traveling 400 miles from Vancouver to Ferry County, ENCS students worked to expand the unit’s capabilities. They helped develop a web application that allows the unit to be linked to a database as well as operated and monitored remotely, making it a “smart” device.

“This was a great learning experience,” said Xinghui Zhao, associate professor and ENCS director. “Our students are taking their ideas about state‑of‑the‑art technology beyond the classroom. They can see the things they’ve learned making a difference for people.”

Initial funding from Microsoft and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources launched the project in 2018. A 2022 grant from Microsoft funded construction of the latest prototype.

“More than 120 million people across the U.S. lack internet access at broadband speeds, many of them in rural communities like Ferry County,” said Mike Egan, Microsoft senior director and TechSpark lead. “By listening and working side‑by‑side with local education, government and tribal partners, we can make real progress to help bridge the digital divide and turn community challenges into opportunities.” 

The partners plan to continue to iterate on the unit, envisioning artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoT) usage leading to broader research and education opportunities. Zhao plans to recruit additional computer science and engineering students in the coming year to keep upgrading its capabilities.

A WSU student tests a remote control system for the new nomadic broadband prototype.
Desi Ah Yek, senior in School of Engineering and Computer Science at WSU Vancouver, tests a remote control system for the new nomadic broadband prototype at Ferry County. The mobile unit creates high-speed internet connection in rugged, rural area using a variety of wireless technologies and unused radio frequencies.

“By enabling a reliable connection in rural areas, nomadic broadband opens up potentials of bringing AI and IoT applications to these underserved communities,” she said. “It’s a great way to advance WSU’s land‑grant mission.”

“Rural communities shouldn’t be less safe from lack of technology,” Lane said. “This is about digital equity.”

The demonstration is planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 26, beginning from the Ferry County Courthouse, 290 E Tessie Ave, Republic, Wash. Participants will meet at the office, then drive to a nearby demo site in the Colville National Forest.

To learn more about the demo, or attend, contact Trevor Lane, WSU Ferry County Extension Director, at 509‑775‑5225 ext. 1116, or send an email to trevor.lane@wsu.edu.

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