TV white space could be used to expand rural broadband

Unused TV channels currently acting as buffers between active channels could be used to expand rural broadband in Wisconsin and elsewhere, according to a group called Connect Americans Now.

“In Wisconsin, this is a state that’s on the cutting edge when it comes to adopting, integrating, getting educated about, and passing rules and regulations that make those technologies possible,” said Zach Cikanek, policy spokesman for the recently formed group funded by Microsoft. “Television white space is one of those technologies that right now is one of the most exciting on the horizon, especially when it comes to bridging the rural divide.”

The federal government is helping fund the expansion of rural broadband through the Connect America Fund 2, run by the FCC. Wisconsin is second only to California in terms of funds allotted.

Cikanek spoke at a recent luncheon event in Madison held by the Wisconsin Technology Council. He said 19 million Americans don’t have access to affordable and reliable broadband service, and the largest share of those live in rural communities.

Due to natural barriers like rivers, streams and other obstacles, it can be “prohibitively expensive” to install fiber optic cables or put up needed towers, Cikanek said. Furthermore, residents in those areas are often so widely spaced that it can be hard for providers to justify the cost of reaching them.

With TV white space, a signal can be sent over 9 miles while retaining full broadband quality speeds — 25 megabytes per second.

“It’s a complement, not a competition with existing technologies,” he said. “We believe that the solution will have to include a full range of technologies… It’s going to have to include fiber optic cable, additional wireless technology, satellite technology — especially for those places where there’s as few as two households per square mile.

“But for a huge percentage of the population, if you’re trying to get broadband connectivity over the next five years, television white spaces, as it turns out, may be among the single most cost-effective solutions we can deploy today,” he continued.

As a comparison, he said fiber-optic cable can cost over $30,000 per mile. With TV white space as well as other unlicensed wireless signals, “then you can start to bring down the cost dramatically,” he said.

Wisconsin recently passed a rural broadband expansion bill to spend $35.5 million over three years on this effort, according to the Tech Council.

Connect Americans Now is proposing to the Federal Communications Commission that at least three of these unused buffer channels remain open for unlicensed use in every market in the country.

Cikanek says this will allow small internet providers, local publicly backed institutions, and even bigger players like AT&T to all “compete to offer the best service at the lowest rate possible.”

He noted there are eight small pilot programs for TV white space going on in the U.S. right now, and other larger pilots taking place elsewhere in the world.

In Africa, TV white space is being used to connect the Red Cross, and first responders in the Philippines were using this technology to coordinate efforts after recent devastating earthquakes, he added.

Angie Dickison, state broadband director at the Public Service Commission, stressed at the luncheon that many rural communities already have “outstanding broadband access — access that some of their urban counterparts would love to have.”

“That said, it’s absolutely a priority for Gov. Walker and for our office to get everyone connected,” she added.

Connect Americans Now launched in January. Its local partners include the Wisconsin Technology Council, the Wisconsin Economic Development Association, the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, and the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families.

The group’s national founding members include: Microsoft; the Schools, Health and Library Broadband Coalition; the National Rural Education Association; the Mid-Atlantic Broadcasting Communities Corporation; Axiom; and others.

“What we want to do is take that human capital, that human productivity, and take it off the shelf and put it to work,” Cikanek said. “Start creating jobs, start helping patients, start helping students prepare for careers in the 21st century.”

He says discussions of rural broadband expansion have been going on for years with no real action, but that might be changing based on what he’s hearing in the nation’s capital.

“It finally feels like the rubber is hitting the road,” Cikanek said, noting it’s at the top of the agenda for every conversation about the infrastructure package.

“We know that if we all bring these technologies together, act together, and make sure we’re clearing away some of the regulatory hurdles, we can close that digital divide over the next five years,” he said.

–By Alex Moe