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Spencer Sevilla is a University of Washington postdoctoral researcher working to expand internet access through a cell-tower-in-a-box technology. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Roughly half of the world’s households have internet access, leaving billions of people without a tool that’s become essential for basic activities including banking, tracking healthcare and viewing YouTube’s educational videos.

In the U.S., more than 24 million Americans — mostly in rural areas — lack access to broadband services, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In some less developed countries, only 15 percent of households are able to get online.

“Internet access is so useful that it becomes a fundamental need,” said Spencer Sevilla, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Washington’s School of Computer Science and Engineering.

This humble box is actually the commercial-grade “cell tower” that Sevilla will be testing in a rural community in Indonesia. It measures roughly 2 feet by 1 1/2 feet by 1 foot and weighs 20 pounds (Community LTE Project Photo)

So Sevilla is leading a team that has developed a more affordable, flexible solution they’re calling IslandCell. The device is a cell-tower network in a box and about the size of a small backpack, weighing 20 pounds.

The idea is that rural communities in the U.S. and abroad can pool their resources to buy the LTE device, which allows them to set up their own mini cellular network reaching up to 10 kilometers or 6 miles. The hardware connects to the internet through a satellite network or a fiber connection, if it’s available, but can provide basic locally-hosted services even without an internet connection.

“We are empowering people to build these tools for themselves,” Sevilla said. “It’s a community ownership model.”

The IslandCell project, which launched in September 2017, received a $25,000 grant from Amazon Catalyst. The grants are awarded to students, staff and professors at the University of Washington and Washington State University. It focuses on projects that address a significant need with a unique solution and are scalable.

“Amazon wants to be seen as helping solve a problem and having an impact,” said Jeanette Ennis, director of Amazon Catalyst at the UW’s CoMotion innovation hub.

Sevilla is building his IslandCell devices using commercial-grade hardware for running a cell tower. Last year the parts were more than $5,000, but the price keeps dropping, he said. Now he can make the devices for about half that amount or less. He uses an inexpensive Zotac Box computer to run the operations.

Sevilla isn’t allowed to let the signal from his cell-tower device escape the UW building where he does his research, so he does the testing in a “super-creepy shipping container-sized room,” he said. The foam stalagmites and stalactites cancel acoustic echoing and the container is shielded to be impenetrable to radio waves. The spooky, cave-like effect is heightened by fact that the lights don’t work. “It’s one of the most unnaturally quiet places I’ve ever been in my life,” Sevilla said. (Community LTE Project Photo))

There are many other efforts trying to figure out how to expand internet coverage globally.

“There are more trendy solutions, the balloons and the drones, and more satellite networks are launching,” Sevilla said. But the different strategies can work in harmony, with his cell network strategy patching into those devices.

“We’re all on the same team. Everyone is pushing toward access,” he said. “And it’s half the world’s population so I don’t think we’re running out of market any time soon.”

Sharon Strover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees that it will take a multi-pronged approach to bring access to more remote locations where it’s too costly to lay miles of fiber cables.

“Rural areas are all so different and they have very different locational issues in play, and that includes physical topography,” said Strover, who is an expert in U.S. connectivity in rural communities.

“They are not all alike at all,” she said. “One-size-fits-all doesn’t work that well.”

Next month Sevilla is traveling to Indonesia to test the technology in the field.

He’s traveling there with Matt Johnson, a graduate student in his department who is part of the IslandCell team, which goes by the name Community LTE Project, or CoLTE. UW assistant professor Kurtis Heimerl rounds out the trio.

Spencer Sevilla designed and ordered SIM cards for his project, which feature a photo from Indonesia where they’ll run the first field test of their cell tower technology. (Community LTE Project Photo)

It will be the first time that the group has been able to test the technology in the field.

One of the deployment challenges has been securing cellular spectrum licenses to broadcast their signals. In rural areas there is plenty of spectrum to go around, Sevilla said, but large cellular companies are required to buy it nationwide, even if they’re mostly using it in urban areas. In other countries, the researchers face the difficulty of navigating foreign licensing systems.

CoLTE has a partnership with a university in the Philippines and would like to try IslandCell there. The group recently attended a conference on indigenous connectivity, and began talking with people in rural communities in the U.S. They’re also interested in being able to deploy the product in the wake of disasters.

Sevilla is still working out details including step-by-step instructions to help people set up the equipment, which he wants to be as easy as installing Wi-Fi systems. There are non-technological aspects to consider, such as translating the product information into other languages.

But he’s happy to be tackling an important issue for billions of people.

“We’re here to make social change,” Sevilla said.

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