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The disconnect between the city and the country is a theme English teachers love to use in order to show the difference in lifestyles our own country has. But there is a real disconnect. As cities are havens of technology and becoming even more interconnected with one another, rural America is falling behind.
Access to the internet and broadband is important. Online education is taking an increasing importance, businesses are often finding new markets on the internet, and jobs that traditionally were on-site can be done from home or other remote locations. Doctors can also increase their connections with rural patients and access to these vital services help companies and the government provide better services.
However, over 34 million Americans –23.4 million in rural areas– are left without access to these vital services, often leaving poor and rural communities behind. There is a way to increase access to these services through both a combined government and free market approach.
There are things known as white spaces -blank TV channels which are the unused bandwidth between TV broadcast channels- and other technologies to increase broadband services to these Americans who are disconnected from the wider world. But all of this depends on the FCC making a critical decision to allow companies to retain access to these white spaces.
Microsoft has announced that they want to partner with other companies in order to close use this existing technology to eliminate the rural gap by 2022. It has a proven record of using white spaces for increasing broadband services; over the past 15 years, they have worked in 20 countries and connected 185,000 people. It is seeking around $8-$12 billion in investment in order to build up universal broadband coverage in these areas.
If Microsoft gets their investment, it predicts that they will be able to reduce costs by about 80 percent when it comes to broadband services.
So what exactly do companies want the FCC to do? They want the FCC to preserve three channels in every market around the country in order to be used for wireless use. For this to happen, the FCC has to finalize rules preserving one channel and other white space rules. If the FCC is able to do so, it will allow Microsoft and other companies to unleash their resources and innovation to bring reliable internet service to millions of Americans.
And though Microsoft is pushing for this, it is not a for-profit venture. The white spaces they use will be for public use and the patents it is using in this venture will be licensed royalty free. Microsoft plans on recouping costs by revenue-sharing with its partners and will use its resources to expand coverage across America.
All the FCC has to do is deregulate. The FCC has come under the head of Ajit Pai, who has been against net neutrality and recently completed a tour of rural America. In addition, a bipartisan group of Representatives led by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) has written a letter to the FCC to preserve those three channels for broadband use.
“We believe that the television white spaces (TVWS) have strong potential to revolutionize broadband internet accessibility in rural areas. TVWS allows a broadband internet connection over 9 miles, while navigating the physical terrain that at times can make wireless broadband connectivity difficult. Because of this range, these internet connections are extremely cost-effective, requiring minimal infrastructure investments, and are far more dependable than the limited connections that many rural areas currently have.”
So this all sounds like a no-brainer. Companies will do the investing and the majority of the legwork and increase opportunities for places that normally don’t get it. Congress, which usually doesn’t unite on anything except for increasing the debt ceiling and abdicating war responsibilities, is pushing for it (and yes it is good they are pushing for it.)
So why oppose it?
The opposition mainly stems from special interests and broadcasters who already control 92 percent of the channels. As Megan Barth points out in Lifezette:
“Currently, these broadcasters already control 92 percent of the channels and have $1.75 billion in government support, with possibly $350 million more coming. They fear that using white spaces for broadband will minimize or interfere with their government-funded operation. These groups don’t really have any legitimate concerns against the bill, so they’re having their expensive consultants orchestrate fake-news talking points to scare legislatures away from supporting the bill.”
Other opponents are fearful that rural Low-Power Television Providers (LPTV) will be harmed by Microsoft’s venture. They believe that there is not enough room for both LPTV and the services Microsoft is providing. However, as The App Association shows, there is plenty of room ‘on the dial’ for both white spaces and LPTV. Microsoft’s proposed plan leaves LPTV with plenty of channels to grow and allow for both the growth of broadband and LPTV.
The group writes:
“That broadband and LPTV can coexist is a matter of engineering, and on that point, the record is clear. The FCC conducted extensive trials on this issue—trials in which the FCC’s own Office of Technology and Engineering found that TVWS had negligible effects on LPTV services, and no impact when the devices, like Microsoft’s, incorporated protections against TV interference. To make such damaging claims about the negative impacts of TVWS on LPTV, critics need proof to support their assumption. Instead, their arguments leave a gaping plot hole.”
So let’s hope that the FCC and Congress will be on the right side of history and not collapse in the face of lobbyists. Allowing Microsoft and other companies to utilize white spaces will increase innovation and economic growth in the United States and provide opportunities for those who only have limited access to it. Otherwise, the opportunity gap between rural and city will continue to grow and more and more Americans will be left behind in the technological revolution.