Rural Broadband Connects Cutting-Edge Observatory

On the edge of the Utah-Nevada border, off Route 50—known as “The Loneliest Road in America”—is Baker, Nevada, with a population of 84 and no significant cities in a 50- to 60-mile radius. This far-flung seclusion gives Baker the darkest skies in America, making it the perfect location for the Great Basin Observatory (GBO), a newly constructed astronomy research and outreach center in the Great Basin National Park. Recently installed broadband and mobile infrastructure enabled Baker to get on the coverage map, and this connection is now bringing stunning photos and remarkable astronomical research to the world.

Baker came to Connect Nevada’s attention in 2014 when residents reached out. A metaphorical dark zone as well as a literal one, broadband and mobile coverage disappeared in Baker, rendering mobile phones and smartphones useless. The nearby Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves offered visual beauties that were going unnoticed, while the inability to place calls posed a serious safety risk in a region named Snake Valley. Baker and Connect Nevada reached out to Commnet for help, a wireless carrier specializing in service solutions for communities with less than 2,500 people.

“We built a tower and microwave equipment to connect to the fiber line,” said John Champagne, Vice President of Planning and Development at Commnet. “We put up equipment to provide cell service, so if you have a Verizon or AT&T phone they work from a cellular and data standpoint.”

While Baker residents and national park visitors can now make calls, use navigation tools, tweet photos, and get help from park rangers if needed, this also opened an opportunity for GBO. Working with schools, colleges, universities, and researchers across the nation, GBO’s telescopes give deep glimpses into Baker’s dark skies and bring back valuable astronomical information which must then be transmitted to the inquiring institutions. Commnet donates 10 MB of broadband to the observatory to make this possible.

“They (GBO) were looking for companies in the area to supply infrastructure,” said Dave Wittekind, Director of Value Added Services at Commnet and key coordinator behind the Baker tower. “We reached out to them. They are up and running, so every night they’re using our broadband services free of charge. It’s good for them, it’s good for students, good for the community, and good for the nation.”

“We have a 16 megapixel CCD camera on the telescope that is continuously taking images throughout the night,” said Paul Gardener, Owner of Observatory Systems and GBO project manager. “The telescope can collect many gigabytes of data over the course of an observing session. Without the microwave link … we would not be able to get any of our data into the hands of the science teams.”

Visit GBO on Facebook to see a few of the stunning sights and insights already captured by the telescope.

To learn more about broadband expansion in rural communities like Baker, Nevada, visit www.connectmycommunity.org.

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