Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Deregulate TV White Spaces to Solve Pennsylvania's Rural Broadband Access Problems

For most people, the internet has become a ubiquitous and integral part of our daily routines that going without it would seem like going without indoor plumbing or electricity. Yet, that’s the reality that millions of rural Americans––and hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians––face every day. This deficiency is, in large part, due to the fact that it’s difficult to connect isolated households and communities to high-speed internet.

In Pennsylvania, the state and federal governments have tried to remedy this lack of access to the rest of the world with taxpayer-funded subsidies to internet providers, yet the problem persists. Rather than pouring millions more taxpayer dollars down the drain, Pennsylvania should urge the FCC to deregulate unused white spaces on the same bandwidth used to transmit TV signals that can be used to connect rural households to the internet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set the benchmark for advanced communications capability, often called broadband, as having a download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for fixed services. According to the FCC’s most recent report, around 800,000 Pennsylvanians––six percent of the total population––lack access to broadband at this level. This issue disproportionately affects the rural poor: a full 20 percent of rural residents lack decent internet access.

Under Pennsylvania state law, residents have the right to purchase access to broadband internet, defined as having a download speed of 1.54 Mbps. This speed is many times slower than the FCC definition, and the inability to reliably access the internet has negative consequences for students, teachers, and businesses around the commonwealth. Businesses in areas with poor internet connection across the state have expressed fears they will be forced to close up shop or relocate due to the lack of internet. In one report from The Daily Item, focused on the Susquehanna River Valley in central Pennsylvania, a custom snowboard company confessed that it’s forced to send employees to another town in order to download needed files onto a flashdrive and then drive back. A tax business along the Susquehanna River also relayed similar concerns with their frequent internet outages, saying that, in the digital age, when everything is kept online, it is simply impossible to keep up without it.

Many places in Pennsylvania aren’t even receiving the state minimum 1.54 Gbps. In November 2016, Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 investigated the slow internet speeds in rural areas and found that some places had even less than 1 Gbps download speeds. Despite poor results from the $434 million in taxpayer subsidies from the federal government between 2006 and 2016, Action News 4 reports that telecom companies in Pennsylvania are slated to receive another $509 million between 2017 and 2027.

With Verizon estimating that “it would cost ‘millions if not billions’ to provide copper or fiber lines for broadband internet across rural Pennsylvania” it may seem that the only option is for rural Pennsylvanians to be stuck in the internet dark ages, or for the government to continue to pour millions of dollars into subsidizing access. However, recent technological innovation in the ability to utilize the unused white spaces to transmit the internet across vast distances appears to offer a cheaper and more effective solution.

White space technology has been pioneered by Microsoft and has been successfully implemented in other countries around the world, such as Namibia and the Philippines. Microsoft estimates that the use of TV white space technology could provide access to about 80 percent of the US rural population currently without broadband. Additionally, they project that utilizing TV white space technology in conjunction with other connection methods, such as satellite, fixed wireless, and 4G, is the cheapest most efficient way to eliminate the rural broadband gap in the US.

To that end, Microsoft has launched an initiative to eliminate the rural broadband gap by July 4 2022, through partnering with telecoms providers and providing royalty-free access to patents and licensing of the TV white spaces technology and code that Microsoft has already developed. Just this week, Microsoft President Brad Smith joined with the governors of Arkansas and Colorado to discuss the digital divide in rural areas.

However, the current regulatory environment surrounding white spaces and their use has created uncertainty that is preventing developments and investments from taking place. This is likely the largest obstacle in the way of TV white space technology being used to increase rural broadband access. Space on the spectrum is limited and the majority of it has been auctioned off by the FCC to various broadcasters and businesses.

Fortunately, the deregulation of the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi spectrum demonstrates the ideal solution. By simply allocating three channels on the TV spectrum as being for public unlicensed use, the FCC can make clear that there is a space for TV white space technology to operate in, opening the door to the necessary investments in the technology.

In an age of rapid technological change and globalized competition, Pennsylvania can’t leave hundreds of thousands of its residents behind in the internet dark ages. FCC deregulation of the white spaces that make this technology possible is the first step to ensuring that no Pennsylvanian gets left behind.

Zachary Yost is a Young Voices Advocate who lives in the Pittsburgh area. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyYost.