Unused TV Channels Offer Important Opportunities for Rural Communities

Issue Overview

Mountain Area Information Network • Wally Bowen

The Center for Rural Strategies • Edyael Casaperalta

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is deciding whether to open up vacant and unused TV channels -- known as white spaces -- to local communities, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs for wireless broadband and advanced communications. Opening up these unused TV channels for 21st century wireless communications could bring affordable broadband access to even the most remote areas of the U.S.

The Critical Need for Rural Broadband

According to a 2007 survey from the Pew Internet and America Life Projects, just 31 percent of rural residents had access to broadband at home, and only 38 percent had broadband access either at home or at work. Rural communities have long heard promises of telemedicine and long-distance education, but without access to broadband, the benefits of high-speed Internet remain a long-neglected promise. Access to broadband would provide rural communities with opportunities for:

Education

Broadband vastly expands the educational resources rural communities can access. In the home, this means access to on-line tutoring websites, plus popular and academic research sources for improved homework and school performance. It also makes the promise of adult and long-distance education a reality by enabling web-based and videoconference classes. Broadband also gives rural residents and entrepreneurs ready access to online job-training and workforce development resources necessary for employment in today's Knowledge Economy.

Economic Development

Rural America is being hit hard by rising gas prices. Broadband access allows new ways for rural businesses to organize and collaborate for greater efficiency and productivity, identify and reach new markets, and promote "buy local" initiatives. Broadband access can level the playing field with urban competitors. Broadband also creates opportunities for employers and employees to save time and money via telecommuting. And access to advanced IT resources only possible with broadband services means that urban-based industries can re-locate IT-dependent operations to rural America for our cost-of-living and quality-of-life advantages.

Healthcare

Broadband allows rural communities to take advantage of the growing field of telemedicine and to greatly improve rural access to advanced healthcare procedures. Broadband makes critical-care resources more accessible, saving lives and precious healthcare dollars. Broadband also increases access to professional development opportunities so that healthcare practitioners can stay current in their field. This critical amenity will be a major step toward overcoming the shortage of doctors in rural communities.

Public Safety

Broadband access is a powerful tool for creating locally-based communication networks for public safety, emergency response, and disaster recovery. As Hurricane Katrina proved, locally-controlled communication systems are vital for early-warning alerts, quick emergency-response, and effective community-based coordination of disaster-relief efforts. While Louisiana's landline

and cell phone networks were knocked out for days, local wireless operators activated emergency communications via the Internet in a matter of hours after the storm struck.

Wireless Broadband for Rural America

For the same reasons you can receive distant television signals, the unused TV channels will enable Wireless Internet Services Providers (WISPS) to reach underserved areas of rural America. Current Wi-Fi signals are subject to physical and geographic obstructions such as mountains, buildings, and dense foliage. By contrast, signals in the lower-frequency unused TV channels can penetrate buildings, cut through dense foliage, and travel over mountains, providing a cost-effective solution for the rural broadband problem.

The Importance of Unlicensed Access

If the superior signal qualities of white spaces spectrum are to be part of the rural broadband solution, access to this vacant spectrum must be unlicensed. Unlicensed access to spectrum is the reason we enjoy such innovative devices as baby monitors, cordless phones, and Wi-Fi Internet service. However, if use of the unused TV channels is licensed, only the wealthiest telecom companies can afford to use it, thus perpetuating absentee ownership of rural networks. By contrast, unlicensed access opens the door to competition from more providers. Most importantly, unlicensed access is the only way to ensure local ownership of rural broadband networks. Unlicensed access opens the door to restoring rural America's traditions of self-help, self-reliance, and community problem-solving.