OPINION: Broadcast Monopolies Are Keeping Rural Americans From High-Speed Broadband

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At least 24 million Americans lack access to broadband internet service and all the benefits it brings, according to a report released last year by the Federal Communications Commission. Of those 24 million, 13 million live in rural areas, resulting in a rural digital divide that demands a solution. A technology known as television white spaces offers a cost-effective answer.

The penalty for this digital divide is high. Rural communities without access to broadband have higher unemployment, less business development, and less access to new technologies such as telehealth services and distance learning where they are needed the most. Children are particularly hard hit, as many can’t do school assignments online and fail to become digitally literate.

The federal government has thrown a lot of money at this problem. Over the last five years, the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have given over $22 billion to telecommunications carriers  to extend broadband coverage, with most of that money going to land lines and fiber-optic cables. Nonetheless, the cost to reach a residence located miles out in the countryside via fiber-optic cable remains prohibitively high and the availability of broadband hasn’t changed much in those five years. Despite the billions of dollars spent, the rural digital divide remains.

But a good solution is at hand. The FCC’s TV white spaces initiative promises to cost-effectively bring broadband to rural areas.

TV white space utilizes a segment of the broadcast spectrum – part of the band that broadcasters use – that allows propagation over long distances and through trees and buildings, making it well-suited to reach rural homes. Adding this capability to the services offered by rural Internet companies cuts the cost of broadband access by more than 80 per cent compared to fiber-optic cable alone and by approximately one half compared to fixed wireless using other spectrum bands.

The FCC has been looking at TV white spaces for almost two decades and has received numerous petitions from Internet service providers, tech companies such as Microsoft and Google, and others interested in pursuing this technology. The commission has been inching towards but has yet to give final approval for full-scale deployment.

A recent survey found that 88 percent of Americans believe the FCC should finalize the rules necessary for TV white spaces to fulfill its potential. So what’s stopping the FCC from giving its approval and bridging the rural digital divide? For one thing, broadcasters oppose the white spaces broadband initiative and are urging the FCC to scrap the idea. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) claims the technology would interfere with its viewers’ over-the-air reception of broadcast signals.

This claim is based on formulae and mathematical calculations, but the proof is in the pudding of actual deployment, where the question is whether viewers notice a difference in TV reception with a white spaces broadband system operating nearby. Pilot studies involving deployment in various rural parts of the country have been conducted under Microsoft’s Airband Initiative and other efforts, and have demonstrated no noticeable interference with TV reception.

Given the good results of the pilot studies, perhaps broadcasters have other motives. Broadcasters have a near monopoly in the rural market, where there is limited cable TV and broadband access, and they may be hesitant to give that up.

In cities, cord cutters are increasingly getting their entertainment over broadband. The same phenomena would surely occur in rural areas if white spaces were to succeed in bringing reasonably priced broadband service. With 13 million or more rural broadcast viewers lacking broadband — a larger population than that of New York City and Los Angeles combined — there’s a lot of money at stake.

Parochial interests must not be allowed to stand in the way of eliminating the rural digital divide and the economic and educational penalty it imposes on millions of Americans. The development of rural telecommunications has long been a priority for the FCC and the TV white spaces solution to the rural divide should be no exception. The FCC should proceed expeditiously to finalize the proceedings and rules that would make this solution a reality.

Ashley Baker is the director of public policy at the Committee for Justice, a nonprofit group that seeks to uphold the Constitution and support constitutionalist judges. Julian Gehman, a telecom attorney practicing in Washington, DC for more than 25 years, is a telecommunications fellow at the Committee for Justice.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.