The digital divide in the most isolated parts of the United States is reinforced by risky economic propositions and geographic barriers to connectivity, but a technology in its infancy — TV white space broadband — may help communities clear these hurdles.
Since the nationwide switch to digital television in 2009, the Federal Communications Commission has gradually lifted restrictions, allowing companies to test whether broadband can be achieved with open frequencies known as white space in rural communities without interfering with other signals.
“The attractiveness of it was this was prime spectrum that was not being used, and it opens up a second Wi-Fi band with significant improvements in coverage, range and bandwidth,” said James Carlson, CEO of hardware manufacturer Carlson Wireless Technologies.
At the end of February, the FCC proposed to “permit higher transmit power and antenna height above average terrain for fixed White Space devices in less congested geographic areas.” The sense is that once these rules are changed, white space broadband providers will have more flexibility.
“Instead of building a new tower, they can place radios on an existing tower to reach customers that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach with that tower,” said Paul Garnett, senior director of the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which has facilitated white space broadband projects in half of the 50 states.
Currently, white space broadband can work, but the economics need to be better before expansion can take place, said Mark Ouellette, president and COO of Axiom. A few years ago, Ouellette’s company started providing white space Internet to a handful of very rural homes in Maine. Once Axiom determined that the technology could work, it helped connect more homes, though its total number of customers, 40 to 50, has stayed relatively flat.
“It’s a very limited service,” Ouellette said. “The reason for that is the service really works best in those places where other wireless connectivity solutions have failed.”
Only a few manufacturers produce equipment for white space broadband, so the hardware is very expensive, which means a provider needs more customers to produce a better return on investment, Ouellette said. But the more customers one has, the less bandwidth one has to offer, hindering providers from delivering Internet speeds that meet customer demand. This conflict between cost and connectivity could be reduced by the FCC’s proposed changes.
At present, because of technological restrictions, Axiom customers in Maine tend to get, on average, a download speed between 3 and 10 Mbps. Although such speeds don’t meet the FCC’s official definition of broadband download speed (25 Mbps), Ouellette sees these connections as a major victory.
“These customers don’t have another choice, so for them, getting connected was exciting,” Ouellette said. “And for us, being able to connect a customer that previously we could not connect was exciting.”
White space can deliver true broadband speed in other contexts, however. Carlson said his company’s equipment can lead to download and upload speeds of 26 Mbps for the “European base” and 22 Mbps for the United States.
Bob Nichols, CEO of Declaration Networks, said his company, through white space technology, offers a variety of speed packages to customers in Virginia and Maryland, though not everyone opts for broadband speed.
“In many cases, 10 megabit speed packages for a lot of rural folks are sufficient,” Nichols said. “While we do offer 25/3 and above, we have a lot of folks who take stuff below.”
Garnett said Radwin, a company in Israel, is introducing white space radios that can bond and aggregate channels for higher speeds — even in the range of 300 Mbps. Garnett added that all Microsoft Airband Initiative projects are aiming for at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps.
Ouellette believes the promise of white space has been fulfilled in that it can help “very difficult-to-serve customers.” Nichols agrees that white space can help fill a gap in the digital divide that other technologies can’t fix.
“The primary reason there is a digital divide is because the traditional approaches, fiber or cable, are very expensive, and the business case associated with deploying those types of technology in lower-density areas just doesn’t make sense,” Nichols said.
“There’s a tremendous need,” Nichols added. “Some of this recent activity with COVID-19 has really highlighted where people are able to go home and do teleworking and where they can’t.”
Other stakeholders see how white space can bring other benefits as the technology advances.
“The coverage of this would be… quite useful for drones compared to Wi-Fi,” Carlson said.
Garnett added that Microsoft has asked the FCC to tweak its regulations to allow for narrowband Internet of Things on white space, which could help connect sensors and other tech on rural farms that have great distances between them.