Telecom deregulation has hit rural America especially hard. Telecom companies have consolidated via mergers and acquisitions, while deploying advanced services in affluent urban markets.
However, service to rural America – especially broadband Internet access – has been neglected.
With a new Congress and Administration taking office in 2009, two core principles should guide the effort to solve the rural broadband problem:
First, absentee-ownership of rural networks has failed. Therefore, rural broadband policies must encourage local ownership of rural networks.
Second, access to the vacant TV channels – known as “white spaces” – is essential for rural broadband. Only wealthy telecom companies can afford licensed spectrum. Therefore, the vacant TV channels should be unlicensed.
Rural America – at its best – is a place of self-help, self-reliance, and community-based problem-solving. These core principles – local ownership and unlicensed access – are essential if rural America is to break the bonds of dependency and neglect.
Absentee-ownership of rural communications networks has been a disaster. Public policy must encourage at least one locally-owned broadband network in rural communities. This local-ownership principle does not preclude non-local broadband providers from also serving rural areas.
Restoring the rural values of self-help and self-reliance in rural communications is not possible without locally-owned networks. For example:
When Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, landline telephone and cell phone networks were out for days.
However, just hours after the storm, local wireless networks were up and running, linking emergency workers with the outside world via the Internet.
Similarly, in some parts of Louisiana, local amateur radio operators were the only communications link for American Red Cross offices, until landline communications were restored.
In Mitchell County, N.C. recently, the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) needed an Internet link on a mountaintop tower for testing and operating its emergency service.
With the local Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), the ARES volunteers had a secure network connection the same day of their request.
“We would still be waiting for an answer” from the non-local phone company, said ARES volunteer Bob Rodgers.
Emerging wireless technologies and applications represent a major source of new jobs and business opportunities. Local ownership of rural networks opens the door for job-training, youth-mentoring, and small business incubation not possible with absentee-owned telecom networks.
Unlicensed use of the vacant TV channels – known as “white spaces” – is the only way to ensure locally-owned rural broadband networks. Unlicensed access also ensures a more open and competitive marketplace for rural broadband services by enabling any provider – local or non-local – to invest in rural communities.
Unlicensed use of the public airwaves is not new. Unlicensed spectrum has enabled innovations such as wireless baby monitors, cordless phones, and Wi-Fi access to the Internet.
The superior quality of the vacant TV spectrum – greater range and penetration – is ideal for rural settings, including densely wooded and mountainous environments.
In many rural areas, only 30 percent of the available TV channels will be used for digital broadcasting, leaving ample vacant spectrum for solving the rural broadband problem.
Licensed use means:
corporate control of rural networks
continued dependency and neglect for rural America.
Unlicensed use means:
Local control of rural networks
More open and competitive markets for rural broadband
Rural self-reliance, self-help and self-determination
More responsiveness to local needs, especially emergency services, job training, and economic development.
Ensuring local control of portions of the public airwaves is not a new idea.
The FCC’s 1999 order creating low-power FM radio protects local communities by requiring local ownership of LPFM stations.
This local-ownership requirement prevents the neglect of local voices and local needs stemming from absentee ownership.
With unlicensed use of the vacant TV channels – plus support for locally-owned networks – universal broadband access can become a reality in rural America.
Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, N.C. He also served on the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority, now known as the e-NC Authority.