A national and local coalition of major corporations, advocacy groups, and lawmakers - including local legislators in northern Wisconsin - is calling for the use of so-called TV white spaces for broadband connectivity, a move they say could resolve most broadband access problems in the nation's rural areas.
State Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) and Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) are among the most vocal proponents in Wisconsin.
Advocates say the most cost-effective approach to closing the digital divide in rural America involves using a variety of technologies across a range of frequencies, including not only fiber-optic cabling and wireless satellite technologies but also TV white spaces.
TV white spaces are unused buffer channels between active broadcast channels in the VHF and UHF spectrum. The buffers were established to mitigate broadcasting interference - i.e., having the broadcast of one channel clash and mingle with the broadcast of another.
But advocates say this unused spectrum can be employed for powerful broadband Internet access without interfering with surrounding TV channels.
According to a study by The Boston Consulting Group, the technology uses frequencies that allow it to move through objects like buildings, hills, and foliage, deliver high speed Internet that operates four times faster and reaches 16 times farther than current WiFi, and could reach 80 percent of the rural population that is now without broadband access.
Building a coalition
Recently, Felzkowski (R-Irma) and state Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) sponsored a joint resolution focusing on the technology. The resolution calls on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure the use of at least three channels below 700 MHz on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country.
"With this joint resolution, we continue to prioritize broadband connectivity by pursuing yet another option that may have the ability to deliver Internet faster and further than current technology allows," Felzkowski said.
Marklein said the white space opportunity demonstrates exactly why officials must be nimble and willing to try new technology to meet the needs of rural families.
Last fall, Felzkowski and Tiffany also wrote a joint letter to the FCC calling on them to help make TV white space a broadband reality. In their letter, Felzkowski and Tiffany observed that, in the rural Northwoods, many of their constituents struggled every day to gain access to reliable and sustainable broadband.
"We hear from constituents every week asking us when broadband will reach their doors," the lawmakers wrote. "As part of that process, we talk to providers in their area to see what can be done for them. It is often a frustrating process for them and for us because we cannot always do something to help."
After researching the white space possibilities, Tiffany and Felzkowski said they believed the technology has the ability to transform the lives of people in the Northwoods and across rural Wisconsin and is already doing so: The lawmakers said TV white space technology has been successfully tested in 20 pilot efforts connecting 185,000 people.
The lawmakers urged the FCC to adopt regulations needed to allow TV white space to be an option for broadband access. Among other things, the FCC would need to create regulatory certainty to stabilize the market for equipment development and manufacturing, the letter stated.
More specifically, as the Felzkowski resolution states, TV white space broadband advocates want three channels below 700 MHz available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV white spaces in smaller markets and rural areas.
Felzkowski and Tiffany and others are only part of an emerging state and national coalition.
On the national level, the coalition has some muscle behind it, especially Microsoft Corp. Nationally, the coalition is officially known as Connect Americans Now, which describes itself as a diverse group of community leaders, rural advocates, and top innovators.
"All Americans - regardless of where they live - deserve access to high-speed Internet," Richard T. Cullen, executive director of Connect Americans Now (CAN), said. "Without a broadband connection, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments, Americans in rural areas are unable to fully utilize telemedicine, farmers are denied the promise of precision agriculture and businesses are unable to tap into the world of online commerce. Congress and the FCC must stand with rural America by allowing Internet service providers to deliver broadband via white spaces spectrum."
In Wisconsin, CAN's partners include the Wisconsin Technology Council, Wisconsin Economic Development Association, Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, and Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families.
In Congress, a bipartisan coterie of supporters include Wisconsin's Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, as well as Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Austin Scott (R-Ga.), Suzan DelBene (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and Mark Walker (R-N.C.).
The lawmakers have also penned a letter to the FCC urging action.
"We would never fathom a rural resident or business relocating to enjoy plumbing or electricity, but too many of our constituents face just that choice when it comes to the modern equivalent: accessing broadband and the Internet," they wrote.
The lawmakers cited the FCC's 2016 Broadband Progress Report, which found that 34 million Americans do not have broadband access, and, of those, 24 million live in rural communities that lack the infrastructure necessary to provide a reliable and affordable connection. An estimated 1.6 million people living on tribal lands lack Internet access at home.
"This means students, farmers, doctors, law enforcement officials and families across rural America are unable to access the Internet and, consequently, are being denied the economic, health and public safety advances enabled by that access," they wrote.
The effects of that disparity are clear, the lawmakers stated.
"According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, researchers at universities in Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma found that rural counties with access to broadband correlated to higher incomes and lower unemployment," they wrote.
With one in 10 Americans lacking access to technological opportunities, the lawmakers said it was time to make affordable broadband Internet available to all Americans. And, they concluded, using TV white spaces could be transformative.
"Robust low-cost broadband connections literally connect rural communities to the rest of the world," they wrote. "They allow students to connect to their school networks from home, or use online resources for homework and other projects. Farmers could use cloud computing and analytics software to better grow and monitor their crops, reduce waste, save water, optimize fertilization and maximize yields. Doctors in rural health clinics would be able to access life-saving information through broadband connected networks with urban medical centers. Law-enforcement would be able to quickly dispatch officers and relay arrest-warrant information during emergencies. Families could not only share pictures and stay in touch with each other, but also access a wealth of economic opportunities to which they would otherwise not have access."
Broadcasters say nay
As might be expected, TV broadcasters are less than thrilled with the idea.
When Microsoft announced last July that it would be starting TV white space broadband programs in 12 states, including Wisconsin, the National Association of Broadcasters quickly denounced the plan.
The NAB noted that the FCC recently had auctioned off low-band frequencies - in which some low-power TV stations sold their spectrum space - in a bid to repackage the broadcast spectrum and open up wireless channels and that Microsoft did not participate.
"It's the height of arrogance for Microsoft - a $540 billion company - to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction," NAB executive vice president of communications Dennis Wharton said. "Microsoft's white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure. Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming."
Another NAB vice president, Patrick McFadden, outlined in his blog the association's case against the broadband TV white space push. McFadden likened Microsoft's latest proposal to a "another heist movie based on a con game that's too clever by half."
"According to Microsoft, it is urgent that the Federal Communications Commission reserve a vacant UHF white space channel in every market nationwide following the post-auction repack of broadcast television stations, and Microsoft maintains this reservation can be accomplished without causing harm to television stations," McFadden wrote.
But, McFadden continued, that's nonsense on its face.
"The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough," he wrote. "If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, 'you must reserve that chair for me, but don't worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,' you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations."
McFadden said Microsoft was telling the commission that it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else.
One of those assertions was untrue, McFadden asserted.
"Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology," he wrote. "But the truth is the commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600 MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint."
Instead, McFadden asserted, Microsoft was trying to convince the commission to give it a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.
"Microsoft also already made this play a decade ago," he wrote. "The company asked for spectrum and the commission granted it, free of charge, in 2010. Since then - despite elaborate promises of investment and innovation - Microsoft and others have done next to nothing to invest in or make worthwhile use of that spectrum."
White space innovation and deployment continue to be largely mythical, McFadden asserted.
"Fun fact: there are probably more shots of gear shifts in the first seven "Fast and the Furious" movies than there are white spaces devices providing Internet service in the United States," he concluded.
The TV White Spaces database has around 800 devices total across the nation, McFadden wrote. Based on the number of test devices and the locations of the registered devices, he estimated that less than 300 were actually providing Internet service to homes.
There were 311 gear shift shots in those movies.
Among other things NAB and other opponents also claim that using the white spaces could interfere not only with TV broadcast signals but with medical devices and impede broadcast TV emergency alert systems. The use would also cost the government money, they say.
Supporters of broadband TV white space use have responded to those arguments.
For one thing, ACT, an association representing more than 5,000 app companies and information technology firms, argues on its blog that Microsoft was not asking the FCC to reserve a channel for itself but channels for public use.
And the blog observed that Microsoft's white space experiments had not been quite the failures NAB claimed they were, pointing to Microsoft's partnership in southern Virginia with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities, B2X, and the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to provide a Homework Network for school children in rural and under-served Charlotte and Halifax counties using TV white space equipment.
In another blog, ACT asserts, broadcasters already have more than 92 percent of the channels.
"The fact is that broadcasters already control 210 MHz of spectrum out of 228 MHz in the TV band and every full power, Class A station is guaranteed a channel," the blog states. "What's at issue with TVWS is merely 18 MHz. That's equivalent to 35 channels reserved for broadcasters' one-way delivery of television programming versus a mere three channels for those serving the public by using TV white spaces for broadband that can enable two-way interactive telemedicine, remote education, personal communication via voice, video, text, streaming media for learning, news, entertainment, agricultural sensors, and more."
ACT also says TV white spaces will not interfere with medical devices because FCC rules require exclusion zones around applicable medical facilities and broadcasters won't lose their ability to alert the public during life-threatening emergencies because full-power broadcasters like ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC are guaranteed a channel assignment by law.
Finally, according to ACT, the government will not lose revenue by making TV white spaces available because unlicensed TV white spaces would not be given to any company on an exclusive basis and would be made available for anyone to use for broadband, just like WiFi.
Finally, ACT argues, broadcasters don't pay for spectrum, and TV white spaces do not take away any spectrum.
"And it was this spectrum that was for sale in the FCC's auction of TV airwaves," the ACT blog stated. "White spaces are the portions that bidders declined to buy and that broadcasters are not using."
Lower costs, magic bullets
Recently, The Boston Consulting Group produced a study for Microsoft that showed white space technology to be a far less expensive and thus more attainable option for bringing broadband access to rural America.
The report, "Pursuing a Rural Broadband Strategy," said it was realistic that the strategy could eliminate the nation's rural broadband gap within the next five years, by July 4, 2022.
"Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology," the report stated.
A mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10-$15 billion, the report stated.
"Under the current regulatory environment, it would take roughly $10 to $15 billion to deploy TV white spaces to connect the 23.4 million people living in rural America without broadband access," the report stated. "This would be roughly 50 percent less than the cost of using fixed wireless (4G LTE) technology ($15-25 billion) and approximately 80 percent less than the cost for using fiber-to-the-home ($45-65 billion)."
The cost sounds good, but even supporters caution that TV white spaces provide no magic bullet. For one thing, deploying the technology will require the construction of base stations and also that consumers purchase antennas and other home devices to receive the transmissions. The latter represents problems of aesthetics that must be solved, and also affordability issues unless economies of scale can be achieved. Supporters said preserving three channels will allow for the needed scale of operations.
"To make the significant investments necessary to reach economies of scale, potential TV white spaces network operators and device and chip manufacturers have converged on the need for a minimum of three usable TV white spaces channels in every market, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets," the BCG report stated.
Finally, even the BCG report acknowledged that a mixed model for rural broadband will continue to be essential.
"But TV white spaces alone will not provide the complete solution," the report stated. "Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile."
TV white spaces would best serve those areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.
But that would serve northern Wisconsin well. As of 2016, Oneida County has a population density of 32; Vilas County, 25.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.