Cash, Innovation, Airwaves: The Recipe for Rural Broadband

If you are reading this, chances are you have good internet access. You have good internet because large corporations have money, and they spent a substantial amount of it to give you access to a wired and wireless infrastructure that connects you to our internet-driven world.

There’s nothing wrong with being in business to make money. It costs billions to build and maintain an innovative broadband infrastructure across our country.

But for 23.4 million rural Americans – roughly the population of New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago and Houston and Philadelphia and Phoenix and San Antonio and San Diego, combined –access to quality broadband internet remains out of reach. We need innovative solutions to bridge this gap and bring broadband access to rural America.

In the rural homes, farms, hospitals, and schools without broadband internet access, there are bigger issues than streaming the latest Netflix series the moment it drops. Agriculture is less efficient without the connections required by the latest farming tech. Students cannot access the same educational resources as their broadband-enabled classmates. Patients must drive for hours to reach specialized doctors with internet-connected databases. And countless Americans are left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Until now, the biggest hurdle to expanding rural broadband access has been the cost- and resource- prohibitive nature of building out wired connectivity in remote areas with small populations. However, attention has shifted to an innovative new concept that leverages a resource that we already have. A resource that has been patiently waiting to be used: TV white spaces (TVWS).

These so-called white spaces are large blocks of spectrum that were designed as buffer spaces between television channels. Today, these spaces remain available and unused by traditional broadcast TV stations.

TVWS spectrum can transmit signals much further than other wireless data technologies, and if opened for unlicensed use, could be refashioned into lightning-quick broadband infrastructure for a fraction of the cost of building out wired broadband.

The challenge has always been managing unlicensed use of TVWS to ensure quality and reliability of connections. Thankfully, tech companies like Microsoft are ready and willing to use their research and development to innovate and invest in TVWS technology that will bring quality connectivity to more people in more places.

While there may be financial gain for this rural broadband initiative, Microsoft has run an early adopter program and agreed to reinvest their profits in infrastructure to bring the technology to more rural areas. Sounds like a win-win.

With so many of us experiencing the benefits and efficiencies of broadband connectivity, it is only fair we share these opportunities with our fellow Americans in rural communities.

However, the TV industry feels this is their space. They make this claim even though the proposed white spaces are separate from the channels licensed by broadcast stations. They harp on the potential for signal interference, but these concerns can be easily mitigated with proper planning and collaboration. This kind of planning and collaboration happens all the time, in almost every spectrum band. In fact, some bands on the spectrum map have six or seven different types of users, ranging from fixed satellite to amateur radio operators. Disputes over acceptable levels of interference arise and are resolved in due course, as simple as drivers on the road merging in traffic. Overstating the difficulty of managing interference is a common argument used to prevent others from using the spectrum band, and could keep millions of Americans from accessing broadband connectivity.

This summer, the Federal Communications Commission dedicated the month of August to rural broadband to explore solutions for greater connectivity in rural areas, like holding broadband service auctions, expanding spectrum use, and renewing wireless licenses. Members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, have urged the FCC to consider television white spaces as a vital, contributing solution to bridge the digital divide. More voices help make this idea a reality.

We all benefit from a connected society. Connected doctors can share medical advice across geographic boundaries to deliver life-saving cures to patients. Internet-enabled farmers can plan for known weather patterns and use technology to help cultivate higher-yield crops. Students and schools can access encyclopedic internet resources for their enrichment and success.

Innovation and infrastructure are expensive. But innovation for the sake of rural broadband - through an available, unused resource that helps talented Americans fulfill their potential - is worth every penny.

Based in rural Colorado, Julie Yack is the Chief Operations Officer at Colorado Technology Consultants. Julie is a leader in IT consulting and training for companies around the world, sharing over 15 years of experience in business solution planning and software. Julie is a frequent speaker at international conferences, and a coveted contributor on books, technical publications, and online courses.