WASHINGTON — A service that in the not-so-distant past may have been considered a luxury is now so deeply engrained in almost every area of society that its absence can be a very real handicap.
That service is high-speed internet. While common in some parts of the country, other areas – mainly rural areas and small towns – are hampered by what has become known as the digital divide. From students whose assignments rely on the internet to underserved patients and rural hospitals, reliable internet connectivity is vital to their success. Small businesses, which employ more than half of the Kansas workforce, and even farmers who practice precision agriculture are also in need of fast, consistent internet service.
Connect America Now, or CAN, is a group of community leaders, rural advocates and leading innovators who have banded together to eliminate the digital divide by 2022. Their plan involves using TV white spaces to expand reliable internet service.
“Internet is as vital as electricity if you want to run a business, school, clinic or just have a higher quality of living,” said Zach Cikanek, national spokesperson for CAN.
The group is focusing their attention on the FCC right now. “We’re looking to our regulators in Washington in hopes we can secure sufficient radio spectrum so we can employ TV white space all over the country,” Cikanek said. “If regulators do not change their current course, those TV frequencies would remain vacant, just white static on the screen, not put to use until a broadcaster comes along and wants to put a TV channel on that station.”
According to Cikanek, there has always been vacant television spectrum in many rural communities because there weren’t that many channels being broadcast. Even more were vacated during the digital transition in 2009, because digital signals can carry more info over fewer channels. “So now we have this incredible opportunity to use public airwaves to connect about 19 million rural Americans to broadband,” he said.
While cellular and LTE technologies require being near a tower – a challenge for rural areas – TV frequencies can carry large amounts of information nine miles or more and go through natural barriers. “With TV white space we can reach all the consumers regardless of population density,” Cikanek said.
The FCC has already issued regulations that allow one channel in this range of frequencies to be used for digital broadband internet via TV white space. “In order to increase adoption of the technology and create a market for providers, we need at least three channels,” he said. “We are asking the FCC to finalize the rule that gives access to the second and promulgated a rule for the third for unlicensed use.” He explained that the availability of vacant channels in each market for unlicensed use will encourage competition so rural broadband becomes more attractive to investors.
Opposition to the plan has been isolated to a coalition of broadcasters who would prefer this particular range of frequencies remain the exclusive territory of television, Cikanek said. But he points out they are only asking for a handful of these frequencies to be set aside for rural broadband and that television providers would still have open channels available. He believes television providers can work with broadband providers to bring connectivity to rural users.
It’s not so much opposition the plan faces as it is the painfully slow process of getting things done in D.C. “When it comes to the regulatory process in D.C., one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is inertia,” he described. “The rules have been a certain way for decades and it takes time to change things. Right now the FCC is working through a series of decisions they will have to make before they can address vacant channels and whether TV white space will have access to those.” He expects decisions to be made over the next twelve months or so.
Cikanek encourages people to contact lawmakers or the FCC and ask them to make TV white space a priority because of its importance in closing the digital divide. You can visit www.connectamericansnow.com and find a form to send a letter to lawmakers or the FCC.
“In terms of making sure those channels remain available for decades to come, it’s important that public airways always be put to use for the public good,” Cikanek concluded.
–Donna Sullivan, Editor
Grass & Grain
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