White space is your friend, as page designers all know. Now, it could be the friend of rural internet users as well.
Chairman Ajit Pai said at a House Communications Subcommittee meeting the FCC “will be aggressive about freeing up TV band white spaces for rural broadband,” according to broadcastingcable.com. If he follows through — and a bipartisan group of members of Congress are urging him on — this could represent a revolution in broadband technology in the hinterlands.
Urban dwellers now take broadband and its faster speeds for granted — as 300 million Americans already have access. But 34 million Americans, 24 million of them in rural areas, still lack access to this game-changing technology. That means not only do residents have to wait longer for pages to load, but businesses are unlikely to locate there, and technologies, such as monitoring of crops, that could change the face of farming, cannot be deployed.
Technological advances now allow TV white space — the buffer space between two stations on the broadcast spectrum — to be used for transmissions that could include broadband.
Internet infrastructure will not fully cover the country for some time — it’s too expensive to install and maintain in vast, sparsely populated areas. But TV is available everywhere, and broadband would be available within nine miles of wherever a TV signal was received, which would mean even those in the most remote corners of the country could get broadband service in this way.
The FCC did not allow the use of white space because of fears the signals would interfere with those on licensed spectrums. But in 2010, it adopted new rules that permit unlicensed transmitters to use white space within regulations that guard against signal interference. In 2015, it further relaxed regulations.
But now, there is not enough white space for firms to create a white space broadband market, so some are asking the FCC to set aside additional buffer space — or even empty channels — for expanding broadband. Officials with Microsoft have said three channels — or 18 megahertz — are needed to fully meet demand.
Microsoft is the technology leader on using white space to promote broadband access, and the opposition to this has focused on the firm. The National Association of Broadcasters, for instance, charges Microsoft should have to bid for spectrum just like TV stations and has not used the spectrum it has been granted.
But Microsoft said it would “help stimulate investment through royalty-free access to at least 39 patents and sample source code related to technology we’ve developed” if the spectrum space were granted.
This is not some not-quite-ready futuristic technology. Already, megachurches use it for their wireless microphones, hospitals connect the monitoring of patients’ vital signs via wireless white space Internet and Broadway theaters and NFL stadiums use it to enhance their customers’ experiences. If the necessary white space — three channels or at least 18 megahertz — can be made available, it can mean broadband for virtually everyone.
Pai was not sold on the concept until he took a tour of rural America and got an earful about the lack of access to broadband. Now he is supportive if he can be satisfied the signals won’t interfere with existing channels, and he is pondering a hearing to explore further expansion of the market.
Mignon Clyburn, one of his fellow commissioners, said she would be “the wind beneath the wings” of support for using white spaces for broadband, and another, Michael O’Rielly, has said he is in as long as full-power broadcast channels are protected.
Congress seems persuadable as well. In fact, 42 members already have signed onto a bipartisan letter that points out the potential for white space to bring broadband to rural USA. The letter asked the agency to reaffirm that unlicensed devises can operate in TV white spaces and to make available the three usable TV channels for broadband transmission in every market in the country.
Lack of access to broadband is a serious problem for which an inexpensive and comprehensive solution now seems at hand. Our last presidential election turned on the fact that Flyover America cannot make itself heard. Broadband is not all of that problem — 63 percent of those in rural areas do have access to it — but it is part of it.
It also is part of the reason rural areas are falling behind economically. Businesses simply can’t locate there.
We elected a president who promised to remove the counterproductive rules that are holding back our economy. He has made great headway on this. The FCC can make much more headway by guaranteeing that spectrum space is available and bringing rural broadband to market as quickly as possible.
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