- - Wednesday, February 21, 2018


The notion of a profound “digital divide” between urban and rural areas in America is hardly new. The real issue is what America should do about it — and whether the government or private sector should take the lead.

Only 2 percent of city dwellers lack broadband access. By contrast, a whopping 35 percent of rural residents — about 23 million people — still do. Many folks in the hinterland still rely on satellite technology. Ethernet cable connections or even radio-powered modems to obtain internet access. The rate of growth in rural areas suffers because many promising small businesses can’t meet the connectivity standards of modern consumers.

And rural schoolchildren can’t get properly wired to keep up with increasingly fast-paced classes, many of them conducted online.

President Trump has already signed two executive orders designed to close the urban-rural digital gap. But it’s not enough. Mr. Trump’s orders will help private tech companies establish additional infrastructure needed to reach more underserved areas. But the orders don’t actually expand rural broadband access.

That’s because television broadcasters still exercise a near-monopoly on the use of the frequencies and “white spaces” that allow digital signals to reach commercial enterprises and consumer households.

It’s up to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which last revised its regulatory rules in 2015, to start loosening this stranglehold, which is preventing the latest in interactive programming — including telemedicine and remote education — from reaching users in need.

In the short term, the FCC wouldn’t need to do all that much. Broadcasters already control 210 MHz of spectrum out of 228 MHz in the TV band. Every full power and Class A station is guaranteed a channel. Which means 18 MHz of spectrum — just 8 percent of the total — could easily be made available for new kinds of digital programming.

One of the FCC’s missions is to ensure that use of the spectrum conforms to “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” By allowing public broadcasters to dominate the broadband market to such an extreme degree, the FCC is failing to meet it statutory obligation.

There are important new private sector options that do not impinge upon broadcaster prerogatives. Microsoft, for example, has been a pioneer in the development of Television White Space Technology (TVWST), which exploits the gaps between channels to add badly needed broadband space at a greatly reduced cost. With a new FCC ruling, Microsoft could bring a wave of dynamic providers into the rural broadband market.

But don’t expect broadcasters to relinquish control — not without a fight.

They’ll raise the usual objections. Supporting TVWST will pave the wave for a “privatization” of the airwaves, they’ll charge. And it will harm rural Low-Power Television (LPTV) providers, and interfere with medical devices, threatening patient safety.

In fact, the FCC has adopted strong technical rules and power limits to ensure that TV white spaces devices will not interfere with medical devices. These rules include required exclusion zones around the applicable medical facilities.

And the specter of sweeping privatization? Broadcasters fear that once private companies establish even a small foothold, they’ll eventually lose their public funding. But this is a complete bogeyman. Currently, broadcasters enjoy roughly $1.75 billion in government support, which could increase by $350 million in the near future. There is nothing in current TVWST proposals that actually threatens what broadcasters do.

It’s important to emphasize that TVWST would not simply benefit Microsoft. The company obtains government authority to provide space for new providers, which could end up including dozens of other firms. TVWST functions much like Wi-Fi, with any prospective user — including non-profits — free to take advantage.

Bipartisan support for Microsoft and TVWST is growing in Congress. Last July, Rep. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican issued a letter to the FCC signed by over 40 other House lawmakers supporting TVWST. Other notable signers included House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, and Reps. Darrell Issa California Republican, Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat, Suzan DelBene, Washington Democrat and Anna Eshoo, California Democrat.

Without FCC support, there is a real danger of losing the capacity to reach rural residents with enhanced digital technology. The level of investment in TVWST will almost certainly decline. While other technologies exist to increase broadband access, none offer the same level of affordability.

Through modest deregulation, the FCC has an opportunity to provide relief to so many rural Americans who still find themselves “cyber-disadvantaged.” TVWST increases the number of new broadband providers and exploits currently underutilized capability to reach all Americans. It’s a step in the right direction.

Stewart Lawrence is a Washington writer.

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