Underused ‘white space’ in broadcast spectrum offers broadband hope

“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.

Broadcast “white space,” which describes buffer zones between assigned broadcast channels in the spectrum used to transmit electromagnetic waves, may be the next frontier.

Wisconsin is on a short list of a dozen states targeted by a coalition led by Microsoft to greatly expand the use of white space, mainly in the television spectrum, to extend high-speed broadband internet service to homes, businesses, and more.

Primarily intended for hard-to-serve rural areas, the white space option is attractive because it can operate a speeds four times faster than Wi-Fi and reach up to 16 times farther. Wireless signals can travel over hills, through foliage, and buildings, the same qualities that have long allowed rural communities to get strong television signals.

It’s also less expensive — at least, in theory — because the equipment needs appear to be 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 drop “last-mile” line in sparsely populated areas.

As a result, about a third of the people living in rural America — about 23 million — don’t have broadband or are connected at minimal levels. Those who are connected often don’t enjoy speeds that allow efficient uploads and downloads, or pay prices that may be prohibitive.

That’s why members of the Wisconsin Legislature are getting behind resolutions to encourage the availability of at least three channels below 700 megahertz on an unlicensed basis in every market in the United States. That’s a province of the Federal Communications Commission, which has supported greater use of white space for about a decade but has yet to guarantee spectrum.

Without such guarantees, say members of the Connect Americans Now coalition, providers won’t invest what’s needed to make white space more than a lot of static.

“We hear from constituents every week asking us when broadband will finally reach their doors,” said Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, who joined other lawmakers Jan. 10 in proposing the joint resolution. She and others agreed broadband is essential for modern rural economies, with applications ranging from education to telemedicine, and from business growth to emergency services.



Why is Wisconsin a target for white-space pilot projects? In part because there have been some limited experiments here, but also because Wisconsin ranks only behind California in the amount of federal matching dollars that can be made available in the next few years for broadband projects. Those dollars are assigned through the FCC’s Connect America Fund 2.

It also helps that Microsoft President Brad Smith is a native of Appleton and familiar with both the challenges and opportunities for white-space internet in Wisconsin. Microsoft is a global internet cloud provider and thus has enlightened self-interest in serving more people, as it’s already doing in other places.

“This is really all about getting everybody online in rural communities,” Smith has said. “If 23 million additional customers can access the internet at broadband speeds, every tech company in America will benefit.”

Not everyone is convinced. Broadcasters remain concerned that white-space spectrum isn’t as unused as most people believe, citing possible interference to existing channels, wireless microphones used by groups large and small, UHF and VHF translator stations, and more. They also resent that Microsoft didn’t take part in the recent FCC auction of white space and now wants free spectrum.

Then again, in an increasingly mobile society that has seen what ubiquitous internet coverage can do, it seems unlikely broadcasters can stand up forever against change. Television white space is likely to become one of the tools to bring better, faster, and less expensive coverage to rural America. Wisconsin has a chance to make white space a common connection space.

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