VantagePoint: Scott Valcourt Discusses WiFi Expansion to the Shoals Marine Lab

August 22, 2016

by UNH IT Staff

 

In 1928, University of New Hampshire (UNH) Professor of Zoology, C. Floyd Jackson opened the first summer Marine Zoological Laboratory on Appledore Island, Isles of Shoals. Since then, the island has enjoyed steady growth in the area of marine research. The island currently houses research labs, classrooms, dormitories, and hosts summer courses for high school and college students alike.

Back in 2013, Scott Valcourt, Director of UNH IT New and Emerging Technologies, helped secure a grant through the National Science Foundation. This grant allowed UNH to supply high-speed wireless internet to the island via microwaves from atop a building in Portsmouth, NH. This upgrade directly benefits the Shoals Marine Laboratory, a collaborative program involving UNH and Cornell University. As an added benefit, this increased bandwidth is also bounced to other inhabited islands at the Isles of Shoals.

UNH IT Signals joined Valcourt for a first-hand look at the vast improvements that have taken place in Appledore since Valcourt last visited the island for an assessment three years ago.

 

UNH Signals IT News:

Scott, how did this project come about, where you got wireless out here to Appledore?
 

 

Scott Valcourt:

The project really started as a conversation amongst our CIO and some researchers that are out here on Appledore Island at Shoals Marine Lab about 3 years ago, in 2013. At the time we found a program that had been very successful here at UNH through the National Science Foundation called the Field Station Marine Lab, or FSML, grant program. What the program is designed to do is build infrastructure to support field stations and marine laboratories across the country through the National Science Foundation. We looked at it as, there's this big gaping need for internet connectivity out on the island, as well as an opportunity to enhance the research that's going on in this place with the kind of cyber infrastructure that we've been building elsewhere across the University of New Hampshire, elsewhere across the state of New Hampshire and across the New England region.

 

 

We said, "This fits, let's go for it. Let's see what we can come up with." In partnership with the researchers who were working here and the facility itself we looked to understand how could we build a network that didn't really intrude on what's going on here on the island but with the same token would also provide the communications and connectivity that would allow new kinds of research to happen that had no possible way of occurring with the small network link that they had prior to this.

 

UNH Signals IT News

How does this benefit the university?

 

 

Scott Valcourt:

The Shoals Marine Lab has been in operation since 1966. The researchers and the students who come out here to this environment, it's a very unique ecosystem here, so to be able to do research, to be able to learn about the kinds of activity that goes on in this environment, and to apply some of the areas of study that our UNH students and researchers do, this kind of facility needs the kind of upgrades like we're doing elsewhere across the university. It gives students the chance to come to this remote location, do research, but also use the same tools they would as if they were on the campus environment at UNH in Durham, or Manchester, or in Concord, or anywhere that has good internet connectivity.

 

 

They can bring their tools, laptops, remote devices. They can get access to data, which will be offsite. They can also communicate using Skype or video conferencing or any kinds of other tools, with partners, researchers, people that they want to ask questions of, from here without having to worry about, "I've got to get a boat, I've got to go back on the mainland and ask a question and then come back out again," or try to convince that person, that expert to come to the island for a period of time, and that can easily be a 1 to 2 excursion to be here for what could be an hour or 2 worth of time, just by the way the schedules work. There's a lot of benefits that come to the students and the researchers for upgrading the network connectivity out here. Now we can say beyond a doubt that Shoals Marine Lab is part of UNH because the UNH network is out here on this island.

 

UNH Signals IT News:

Along with the enhanced network capability, there's also inestimable cost savings just from what you described, boats going back and forth, people's time, having to travel back and forth before the technology was available here. Can you speak to that a little bit?

 

Scott Valcourt:

Yeah. We haven't really calculated what the cost savings are going to be in the 2 dimensions away from the initial build out, but we know that for predominantly close to the same cost to get the initial link that was here, which was running somewhere in the 3 to 4 megabits per second on a good day, the cost for that backend connection to get it out here is equivalent to the cost we have now for what is up to 2 to 250 megabits per second symmetric on the island. That's better than most communities in New Hampshire when it comes to network access and capability. For about the same cost on an operating perspective we've upgraded the network link some 20 times to provide greater service to the researchers and the students who are on the island, both when they're here during the season but also on the off-season in terms of monitoring the facilities, making sure that nothing has gone bad when the winter is taking place and things of that nature.

 

 

Other cost savings, some of the researchers who would have been reluctant to take an entire day to come to the island to give a 1 hour lecture for the students that are here or to consult with the students that might be out here, because of other commitments they might have teaching summer classes or doing conferences and other things. Those faculty researchers could participate in the island simply by video conference call. They could be in their office in Durham or Concord or Cornell or anywhere we happen to have research partners, and they can video conference right onto the island and have a 2-way video and audio exchange with students and faculty here, whether they'd be in a lab or in the large commons facility where we have a big 90 inch television screen to allow for communications and activity and presentations at all times of the day or night, especially during the day light when it's hard to close all the windows, you could still see nicely on that television, the components that are there.

 

UNH Signals IT News

Last question, was the demand for this identified before the grant or did you find the grant and then thought, "Wow that would really apply nicely to the Shoals Marine Laboratory?"

 

Scott:

I came out the island ... Actually let me start over, our CIO came out to the island for a visit along with other faculty members who were learning about this facility and what it had to offer, what we were doing here for research and other activities, just as we would in any other location at UNH. It was in the course of that discovery, the CIO pointed towards me and said, "You ought to go check this out and see that's there, and how we might be able to do something." It really was a combination of, what do we need on the island in terms of upgrade to bring the facility to be equivalent to what we might have, or close to equivalent to what we might have on campus, but it was also what does the research agency, like the National Science Foundation, what are they looking to try to foster, to make happen?

 

 

When those 2 things come together, the opportunity and the need, and they match, then there's a chance for us to be able to get some research dollars from a federal agency to upgrade what we have. The National Science Foundation seeing our idea, what we wanted to try to accomplish on the island, they were very happy with that and ultimately the upgrade of the facility had the promise, and still has the promise, and we're already starting the results, of new research being done that otherwise would have never been accomplished or would have been incredibly difficult to accomplish without having the kind of connectivity that's on the island.

 

 

It's a win for everybody, students, researchers, faculty, the university itself, and really the community. The island community is very tight, as most island communities would be all along the coast of the country. It's no different here in the Isle of Shoals, so between Star Island company, the private land owners that are on the islands, as well as the University of New Hampshire and Shoals Marine Lab, that island community working together, just the internet upgrade also benefits the rest of the island community. Between the wireless land spillover that is made available to not only us and our people who are on Appledore Island at Shoals Marine Lab, but also the other islands, they're not that far away so there's a benefit that way.

 

 

Then we're even having some microwave wireless network shots that go to other islands that are in the neighborhood. It's easy for us to be able to say, "Yeah, there's additional opportunity to share this resource of wireless internet connectivity to enhance communications for the community," just as the community comes together when there's a need for emergency fuel or water shortages or power or upgrades or ideas. Just as you might go to your next door neighbor and say, "I really like what you've done to your garage, tell me about what you did. I'm thinking about doing the same to mine," the same happens out here on the island. Everybody wins when there's an innovation that comes forward in this community. We hope that through this innovation it will lead to others that in the island community they say, "What can we learn from this?" That may be some of the new research that happens right off the shores of this island.

 

For more information and to view a video of our visit to Appledore, visit http://unh.edu/it/sml

 

 

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