Innovation Will Help Bridge the Digital Divide
July 11, 2017
This article appeared in RealClearPolicy on July 5, 2017.
On a recent trip to the upper Midwest and Great Plains Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai met with rural broadband providers, local officials, and others to “discuss efforts by the FCC to close the digital divide” in America. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent building municipal broadband projects across the country to solve this problem. But a majority of these systems are not built in rural areas and end up going bankrupt with ratepayers and taxpayers paying for the government’s mistakes. In reality, the use of “white space” channels, 5G wireless, and the maturation of satellite broadband services may do more to bridge the digital divide than any government program or project ever will.
White space channels are invisible airwaves that can be used to transmit digital information. These frequencies are unused gaps in low-band spectrum (below 700 MHz), often between the spectrum channels of television stations. They’re sometimes referred to as “buffer” channels, placed between active television channels to prevent broadcasting interference. The FCC made these channels available for unlicensed public use in 2010. An advantage to using white space is that signals can travel much farther than a typical Wi-Fi signal — 750 meters and up for white spaces compared to 300 meters or less for Wi-Fi.
Because of that wide coverage area, white spaces have the potential to cover entire communities, likely connecting consumers who currently have no to little Internet access. And because white spaces require much less infrastructure, the service can be provided more cheaply than other forms of Internet. This could be particularly useful in rural communities where it’s cost prohibitive for providers to bury fiber cables to reach the end of dusty roads where there aren’t enough customers to pay back the investment. Another benefit of white spaces is that since they use lower frequencies, the signals pass more easily through buildings and other obstacles, better enabling the technology to travel from the originating point to the user than traditional wireless.
Efforts in two rural Virginia communities will provide broadband to more than 1,000 households and 7,500 students. Students will be able to access their school networks from their homes to better enable them to complete homework assignments. Another project, in Carnation, Washington, will use white-space channels to connect technology that measures the moisture and pH levels in farmers’ soil to enable them to grow their crops more efficiently.
At a March hearing on Internet spectrum in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Microsoft regulatory affairs vice president Dave Heiner rightly pointed out that keeping unlicensed spectrum available is important to meet the growing demands of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other technologies.
What about other technologies? The next generation of wireless service, 5G, is expected to result in a leaps-and-bounds improvement over the current 4G technology. For instance, Verizon expects it to cost about half as much as fiber and to provide download speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second — about 50 times as fast as 4G. Verizon is running pilot programs this year after getting the OK from the FCC in 2016. AT&T is testing a technology that uses small antennae to beam high-speed Internet signals along power lines, potentially providing broadband-like speeds to any location with electricity. Another emerging technology to deploy broadband to rural areas uses satellite services. The Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA) notes that satellite broadband can bring Internet to every corner of the country with 25+Mbps speed, the minimum speed considered by the FCC to be broadband.
An estimated 34 million Americans live in communities that still lack access to broadband. Twenty-four million of them are in rural areas, and 5 million include homes with school-aged children. Before being named FCC chairman, Ajit Pai issued a digital empowerment agenda in which he pushed removing barriers to broadband growth. “No one level of government has a monopoly on regulatory inertia,” he said in November 2016:
That’s why federal, state and local governments all need to adopt a broadband deployment agenda that will bring 21st-century digital opportunity to American communities. We can’t let unnecessary regulations be a bottleneck that slows our march toward 5G and smart cities.
Now, to move forward with that goal, Chairman Pai should reserve white spaces for possible Internet expansion and remove red tape from 5G deployment and satellite technologies to help reduce the number of unserved Americans without relying on taxpayer dollars.