June 2008

Guiding Principles for Rural Broadband

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.

Local Ownership

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:

Unlicensed Use of Vacant TV Channels

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:

Unlicensed use means:

A Growing Call for Localism in Congress and the FCC

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.