Broadcasters don’t like it, but a national push for TV airwaves to be used for internet expansion in rural areas is catching on in Wisconsin.
Lawmakers in the state Assembly approved a joint resolution encouraging federal regulators to enable broader use of so-called “white space” technology in under-connected areas on Thursday, weeks after Gov. Scott Walker released a similar statement.
Groups like the Wisconsin Technology Council, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance have also come out in support of white space broadband, joining a Microsoft-led coalition called Connect Americans Now that’s calling for Federal Communications Commission action on the issue.
State and national broadcaster associations, however, are critical of the recent push. They frame it as an attempt by Microsoft to get free access to television airwaves, under the guise of philanthropic behavior.
“There’s a little bit of pulling the wool over the eyes,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
The concept isn’t new: For years, there have been discussions of taking unused radio frequencies between TV channels to transmit internet data across the countryside, from towers to roof-mounted antennas in consumers’ homes.
However, white space technology is still young, and has only recently emerged as a potential solution in rural broadband policy discussions.
“I think it’s pretty under the radar,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Microsoft is definitely responsible for keeping it in the limelight.”
Microsoft has long tinkered with white space technology, running pilot programs on its campus in Redmond, Washington, and in locations in Africa. Last year, it began talking about the technology more seriously: It released a white paper advocating for its use to expand broadband access in rural America. This January, it launched Connect Americans Now.
Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, is one of the authors of the joint resolution that lawmakers voted on last week. He said he first encountered the notion of white space broadband a few months ago. Marklein, who himself lives in the country, has become a fan.
“On my dead-end road, where you’ve got three to four families — there’s no way I’m waiting for fiber to come out here. It’s too expensive,” said Marklein.
White space connections are currently capable of speeds of about 5 to 10 megabits per second, said Mitchell — “which many of us consider very slow,” he said. Those speeds would likely improve over time.
Mitchell also said that cost is a barrier to white space tech: The devices aren’t being manufactured in large quantities, and therefore have an expensive price tag. However, he said that, too, could change if demand for those units from internet service providers goes up.
“That’s one of the reasons Microsoft is so important. They’re trying to get ISPs excited about it,” said Mitchell.
Zach Cikanek, a spokesperson for the coalition that visited Madison last week to promote the campaign at a Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon, said that he believes the excitement is already there. He asserted that what ISPs and manufacturers really need is some assurance from federal regulators that white space broadband can be a safe bet.
“The technology has reached a point where it’s ready to go,” said Cikanek. “The trick now is to have that regulatory certainty.”
The coalition specifically wants rules that would keep three channels in any given market open for unlicensed broadband use, instead of television use. The frequencies in question are ones below 700 megahertz, that are well-suited to traversing hilly or forested terrain.
Broadcasters say the FCC has already been reorganizing TV channels to free up white space for broadband use through “spectrum auctions.” Their argument is that Microsoft should have paid for a slice of the airwaves as part of that process.
“They chose to sit out that auction. And now they’re saying, 'We should get this spectrum for free,'” said Wharton.
Cikanek stressed that his coalition did not want a license for airwave use — rather, it wants rules for ensuring that parts of the spectrum stay clear for broadband purposes.
Mitchell with the Community Broadband Networks Initiative noted that while Microsoft has a track record of philanthropy, it stands to gain from white space technology expansion.
“Certainly it is in their interest,” he said. “They could sell millions more in computers if people in rural areas have internet access.”
He also said he believes broadcasters are trying to protect their exclusive rights to the television spectrum: “They don’t want people messing with their stuff, is what it comes down to it."
NAB's Wharton took issue with that characterization, noting that broadcasters have complied with FCC spectrum auctions. He also stressed that the NAB’s problem was not with rural broadband expansion.
“They’re trying to make it seem we’re opposed to rural broadband, which is akin to opposing puppy dogs and apple pie,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mitchell said that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is supportive of white space technology, although he said that the ultimate goal should remain a fiber-optic network — a more costly, but much more reliable and fast connection.