g i r f t y

Bringing Internet Access to Environmental Education in Yosemite

Cultural & Scientific, University of California, RENS & NRENS
Tags: testbedresearch and educationprpnetworkmicrowavefixed wirelesscalren
REGIONS: California, Western Region

Plans are in the works for a new educational campus in Yosemite National Park to get access to the Internet, allowing children and teens to better study environmental science — from wildfire ecology to geographic information systems.

Thousands of students who visit NatureBridge every year, from inner cities in California and places as far-flung as Japan, would have new 21st-century learning experiences. For example, students would be able to gather information about a controlled burn in the park’s wilderness, upload that data to computers, and compare and discuss it with other students and experts globally, said Kristina Rylands, president of NatureBridge Yosemite Operations.

“To be able to connect in real time with data from around the world, and to be able to inform and validate the science that they’re working within Yosemite could be a very powerful learning experience for students,” she noted.

The new fixed wireless connection is proposed by a partnership between CENIC, University of California Merced, and the National Park Service. Dubbed the Yosemite Connect project, the connection would have several advantages: providing Internet for NatureBridge’s facility; adding a redundant connection for UC Merced; and offering a test-bed opportunity for CENIC to connect its high-speed fiber network with a lower-speed fixed-wireless network.

Connecting to NatureBridge

NatureBridge is building a new state-of-the-art campus at Henness Ridge, located adjacent to the Yosemite West community and 19 miles from Half Dome Village. The new National Environmental Science Center (NESC) will be the only one of its kind in any national park. The 16-building campus will be platinum certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and feature cabins for 224 people, a dining hall, amphitheater, library, laboratory, and classrooms. The campus will take the place of NatureBridge’s previous facility at Crane Flat, which is being restored to wilderness.

Founded as the Yosemite Institute in 1971, NatureBridge is the largest education partner in the national park system. It works to bring students from underserved communities to national parks and provide multi-day environmental science programs for K–12 students in Yosemite, Golden Gate, Olympic, Santa Monica Mountains, Channel Islands, and Prince William Forest. Each year, NatureBridge welcomes more than 700 schools and 30,000 students and teachers to its six campuses.

Perched at an elevation of 6,100 feet in a seldom-visited corner of the park, NatureBridge’s NESC will give students access to numerous teaching spots — forest study plots, nine distinct Sierra Nevada habitats, the South Fork Merced River watershed, a former homestead, and a historic fire tower. In such a remote area, getting high-speed, reliable Internet access is challenging.

Steve Shackleton, the academic coordinator at UC Merced and former head ranger at Yosemite, brought together representatives from UC, NPS, and CENIC to address the lack of connectivity at NESC.

“The idea was what if we did lectures at NatureBridge’s site that could be reached by a student in Africa or Russia or Bolivia simultaneously, and what if those students could interact with our students simultaneously,” Shackleton said.

The Connection Path

To provide the connection, fixed wireless service would be set up to broadcast Internet between four sites. The path-diverse wireless connection would use ground towers, radios, and antennas to transmit the microwave radio signal from UC Merced 25 miles to the north to Mount Bullion, relay 20 miles farther north to Crane Flat Lookout, and continue 10 miles to the new NatureBridge facility. The line-of-sight wireless communication technology requires towers with directional radio antennas on each end of the signal.

A communication tower would be constructed at NatureBridge, and microwave equipment at each of the sites provides links to UC Merced’s campus network fiber connection with the CENIC backbone, the California Research and Education Network (CalREN). CalREN consists of about 8,000 miles of CENIC-owned and -managed fiber, last-mile fiber, and hundreds of optical components, and serves the majority of research and education institutions in the state.

Fail-over Connection

At UC Merced, the new fixed wireless connection would benefit the university by providing a redundant path for disaster recovery. Just recently, in August, construction on campus caused an accidental cut to the fiber network that disabled all wired and wireless Internet access.

University officials expect continued disruptions as the young campus expands its facilities and construction continues. The new connection to NatureBridge would ensure the university has at least one connection to the Internet at all times.

“We want to be able to rely on an alternate path so that we have continuity of critical services like central authentication and business services, and all these things you need to run a university,” said Jeff Weekley, director of cyberinfrastructure and research computing at UC Merced. “So, we saw an opportunity in this partnership.”

Test-bed Case

Yosemite Connect would also mark a first for CENIC.

“It’s a test bed for CENIC because it will be the first case where CENIC is extending services over a fixed wide-area network,” said Greg Hidley, senior engineer for the Yosemite Connect project. “So we and CENIC are all learning about the network interface between the very high-speed California CENIC network that runs over fiber and the much lower-speed fixed wireless networks that are in this case reaching out to NatureBridge.”

Specifically, researchers are looking at how to extend the Pacific Research Platform (PRP). A high-speed data freeway, PRP supports a broad range of data-intensive research projects that will have wide-reaching impacts on science and technology worldwide. PRP typically has 10- to 100-gigabit throughput speeds in aggregate. Fixed wireless networks, such as the proposed Yosemite Connect project’s network, typically have half a gigabit to 1 gigabit of speed. Researchers are working together to learn about the infrastructure needed to protect PRP network architecture as it intersects public paths so that it achieves research and education goals and is as reliable and efficient as possible, Hidley said.

Going Live Next Year

If the plan comes together, the new fixed wireless connection might go live early in 2019.

The project furthers CENIC’s ongoing goal to bring quality, high-speed broadband service to all research and education communities, including unserved and underserved communities such as NatureBridge. Internet access would allow students in Yosemite to connect their outdoor learning experiences to the world.

“By the time they leave Yosemite, we’re hoping they’ve developed a strong sense of their place in Yosemite, their place in the community, and their place on the planet,” Rylands said.

Watch this space for project updates, as well as a look at how Yosemite Connect would further the work of Science DMZs, public safety infrastructure, and more.