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'White Space' Tech Could Soon Bring Better Broadband to Rural America

The spectrum freed from the shift to digital TV is being used to bring broadband to long neglected parts of the US. But its path to market has been a messy one.

by Karl Bode
Mar 3 2020, 2:28pm

Image: Getty Images

While FCC boss Ajit Pai has repeatedly said his top priority is curing the “digital divide,” making broadband more widely available and affordable to underserved Americans, consumer groups say many of his policies, such as gutting the FCC’s consumer protection authority at the behest of telecom lobbyists, only made the problem worse.

But in a vote last week, Pai’s office gave a leg up to technology that could truly help address America’s stubborn broadband availability and affordability problems.

Last Friday the FCC voted to approve a new order paving the way for the expanded use of “white space broadband,” a promising technology that uses the spectrum freed from the shift to digital television to beam broadband into traditionally harder to reach rural areas.

“Enabling unlicensed use of TV white spaces—channels in the television spectrum bands where there are no television stations—can be a game changer,” Pai said in a statement. “That’s because these white spaces are in a region of spectrum that is particularly attractive for delivering services over long distances and coping with variations in terrain.”

Companies like Microsoft have been testing the technology for years in locations ranging from Cambridge, England to remote colleges in Ghana. In 2017, Microsoft announced an ambitious plan to bring the technology to more than 2 million rural Americans across a dozen states by July 2022.

“We all need to move faster,” Microsoft said at the time. “It took 50 years to electrify the nation. The millions of Americans waiting for broadband don’t have the luxury of time.”

Companies like Microsoft see disconnected Americans as an untapped market for everything from advertising to software used by farmers and warehouses. During its attempt to fix the problem, Microsoft has brought a lot of attention to the fact that US broadband coverage gaps are likely far worse than the FCC estimates, thanks to crappy US broadband maps.

The FCC’s order proposes permitting higher transmit power and antenna height in less congested geographic areas. If adopted, the FCC says, these changes would allow white space devices to reach users at greater distances, resulting in better broadband coverage. The order comes on the heels of a 2010 FCC ruling laying some initial ground rules for the technology.

Consumer protection lawyer and wireless policy expert Harold Feld previously told Motherboard the technology had been stuck in neutral due to concerns about potential interference with existing technologies (much of which engineers found can be mitigated), and opposition from big telecom companies wary of the threat of additional competition.

The National Associations of Broadcasters (NAB) has been a particularly fierce opponent of the technology over the years, going so far as to employ Dolly Parton in 2008 to try and scare government leaders away from the technology. Feld said Pai had previously delayed embracing white space tech out of loyalty to broadcasters and telecom incumbents.

So what changed?

“Microsoft has been doing a very effective job with their Airband initiative of getting a very strong rural Republican coalition to put pressure on the FCC to do something,” Feld told Motherboard in a phone interview this week.

Feld was quick to note while the new order is a good thing, delays by the FCC—and what he called a “deliberately sloppy” effort to repack remaining TV stations after white space spectrum was auctioned off—eroded much of the technology’s original potential.

“The FCC basically threw everybody back together in a manner that in the more crowded urban markets meant that there isn’t a heck of a lot of space for TV white spaces to operate,” Feld said. He added that Pai previously shot down more thoughtful repacking proposals.

“If they’d done it the way we’d wanted to do it six or seven years ago, then it could have been a significant add on to urban broadband,” Feld said. “But you needed to have enough contiguous space in the urban areas to make that happen, which required the FCC to handle the repacking with care and precision—which they did not.”

Once the technology no longer posed a threat to their urban dominance, incumbent broadband providers backed off their opposition to it. He added that NAB and Microsoft also sat down and crafted a spectrum sharing compromise to mitigate potential interference.

While an echo of its original potential, Feld said a lot of the white space broadband debates contributed to significant advancements in the realms of unlicensed spectrum and spectrum sharing, which in turn have helped inform other wireless broadband improvement efforts, like the shared use of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.

Bob Nichols is CEO of Declaration Networks, the country’s biggest provider of White Space broadband. He told Motherboard his company is making great strides in using white spaces to deliver better broadband to areas where a consumer’s only option has historically been capped and expensive satellite, antiquated DSL, or often—nothing at all.

“The initial order was groundbreaking in opening up the White Space frequencies for unlicensed use,” Nichols told Motherboard. “However uncertainty around the impact of the broadcasters opposition, the auctioning of the portions of frequencies, and limited channels in urban areas slowed aggressive industry activity.”

Nichols said his company has had good luck delivering at least 25 Mbps (the FCC’s base definition of broadband) to users in places like rural Virginia, where white space broadband and government grants have helped bring broadband to 65,000 unserved residents.

Nichols said that newer white space broadband hardware from vendors like Radwin should soon be able to steadily push existing speeds higher for rural users.

“With the existing rules and available equipment we are able to exceed 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up and depending on available channels we can go higher,” he said.” We anticipate this speed to significantly increase from what we get today due to their advanced capabilities and their ability to aggregate non-contiguous channels.”

While white space broadband isn’t a silver bullet, it’s going to be a useful tool in the toolchest in addressing America’s stubborn broadband availability problems. And a lot of the advancements made during its meandering, decade-plus path to market should prove helpful in the development of other new technologies aimed at bridging the digital divide.

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