Broadcast spectrum ‘white space’ inches closer to providing rural broadband service

“Broadband” is a general term for a mix of technologies that can connect people and machines to the internet. Those delivery systems range from typically slow dial-up connections to cable and digital subscriber lines, from satellite to public Wi-Fi networks, and from optical fiber to small-cell transmission links for 5G service.

Yet another promising technology is underused broadcast “white space,” which describes buffer zones between assigned broadcast channels in the spectrum used to transmit electromagnetic waves.

White space may soon become part of the larger tech mosaic for improving broadband service in hard-to-reach parts of the nation, rural Wisconsin included.

The latest step toward making white-space technologies part of the mix came Feb. 5 when Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asked the full commission to adopt a rule-making process to remove current regulatory hurdles. The FCC is expected to take up the plan Feb. 28.

Pai’s announcement was supported by an array of groups that believe the cost of bridging society’s often-lamented “digital divide” requires a blend of technologies, especially in areas where laying optical fiber is far too costly.

White space refers to the unused buffers, in this case between television channels, that can be used to carry wireless signals and extend high-speed internet service for homes, businesses, health care systems, emergency services, and more.

It’s attractive as a rural broadband option because it can operate at speeds four times faster than Wi-Fi and reach up to 16 times farther. Wireless white-space signals can travel over hills, through foliage and buildings — the same qualities that have long allowed rural communities to get strong television signals.

White space is viewed as less expensive because the equipment needs are less elaborate than fiber-optic cable or transmitters that must be more densely situated to work. It can cost $30,000 per mile for fiber-optic cable under normal conditions — more over more rugged terrain — which is why internet service providers have been hesitant to install “last-mile” fiber lines in sparsely populated areas.

An estimated 34 million Americans lack an affordable, reliable internet connection, according to Connect Americans Now, and 19.4 million of them live in rural America. Those who are connected often don’t enjoy speeds that allow efficient uploads and downloads, or they pay prices that may be prohibitive.

Two years ago, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators got behind resolutions to encourage the guaranteed availability of at least three white-space bands on an unlicensed basis in every U.S. market. However, governing those channels (television bands 2 through 35) is a province of the FCC, which is why Pai’s decision to force the issue with the rest of federal commission is critical.

His proposal would specifically permit higher transmit power and higher antennas for fixed white space devices in rural areas, thus allowing white space devices to reach users at greater distances. Higher power would enhance signal ability to penetrate foliage, buildings, and other obstacles. 

The National Association of Broadcasters, which had been worried about interference to existing broadcast channels from white-space internet, now appears willing to work with the FCC on the latest proposal.

Groups that applauded Pai’s notice represent a loose-knit alliance of the broadband disconnected. They included agriculture (The National Grange and Midwest Food Products Association), education (the Consortium for School Networking and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition), health care (the American Telemedicine Association), and about 10 business and innovation groups. School districts in some parts of the country already use white space to provide internet service to students so they can do their homework.

It’s possible Wisconsin could soon see similar white-space pilot projects. In part, that’s because Wisconsin ranks only behind California in the amount of federal matching dollars available for broadband projects of all descriptions. Those dollars are assigned through the FCC’s Connect America Fund 2.

Tech giant Microsoft has also announced interest in making Wisconsin a test case. Microsoft is a major supporter of the Connected Americans Now group, and Microsoft President Brad Smith is a native of Appleton.

“(Pai’s) notice is an important step forward towards bringing broadband to more people in rural America,” Smith said via Twitter.

Television white space for internet is no longer a bunch of static. It has moved a step closer to helping provide better, faster, and less expensive broadband coverage to parts of rural America.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.