The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Building the Digital Bridge

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.

In 2014, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) President Tom Schatz and I co-authored a book, Telecom Unplugged: Ushering in a New Digital Era.  Some of the material in the book became out of date with the advent of the Open Internet Order on February 26, 2015, and passage of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act on February 24, 2016. 

Among those items still in play are efforts to increase broadband deployment across the country, which were based on the National Broadband Plan and the FCC’s National Broadband Map.  The map, and its underlying data, have not been updated since 2014. 

CAGW also reviewed the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the Universal Service Fund (USF), the implementation of the Connect America Fund (CAF), and failing efforts by local governments to develop government-owned municipal broadband networks in direct competition with local providers.  The book discussed the 2009 stimulus program, which proved to be a boondoggle, wasting of millions in taxpayer dollars with little measurable return in increased broadband access.

Fast forward to 2017, with a new administration in the White House, and a new chairman, Ajit Pai, at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  The chairman, a Kansas native, is very focused on bridging the digital divide in rural communities across the country.  In June 2017, he traversed Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, including a visit to a Sioux reservation.  In July 2017, he was on the road again, visiting rural communities in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. 

During his travels, he tweeted about his experiences.  On July 12, 2017, I asked him via twitter about the rural broadband connection in the region of Virginia he was visiting.  His response was as follows:  “Not where it needs to be; that’s why I wanted to see rural VA’s challenges for myself and why #broadband deployment is @FCC’s top priority!”

The USF and RUS are supposed to help bridge the telecommunications gap between the served and unserved, but it is difficult and expensive to build broadband infrastructure in the mountain regions in both the east and west, as well as across the rural plains.  While the FCC is seeking to restructure CAF to ensure the funds are sent to where they may be most needed, private sector companies are also seeking solutions to help bridge the digital divide.  For example, Microsoft is developing broadband internet networks using television white space (TVWS) channels.    

TVWS is the unused space between the television broadcast channels that serves as a buffer between television stations to help avoid one feed from bleeding into the next station’s feed.  It can be used, without any impact on station interference, to access broadband internet in rural areas by using a database manager and white space radios.  The benefits of using TVWS signals are twofold:  they can travel further than standard Wi-Fi signals and, in the lower frequencies, can penetrate through obstacles and cover uneven ground with less infrastructure. 

Microsoft announced on July 11, 2017, that it would begin advancing TVWS broadband initiatives in 12 states by forming partnerships with rural broadband providers to help connect homes in rural communities.

To support the use of TVWS for broadband in rural areas, the FCC needs to ensure that there are three usable TV channels available for white space broadband transmission purposes in every media market in the country.  On July 31, 2017, a bipartisan group of 42 members of congress wrote to the FCC asking that at least three 6MHz television white space channels in every media market across the U.S. be set aside to promote access to affordable broadband internet, particularly in rural and underserved areas.

By ensuring that three usable TV channels are available for white space broadband transmission purposes in every market in the country, the commission could then free spectrum from existing regulatory limitations and make it available for highly beneficial and efficient broadband internet use by the private sector.  While this may not solve the entire problem of closing the digital divide, it will provide a good start to building that bridge.

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