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Rural Broadband and the TV White Space

In 2004, the FCC initiated a proceeding to determine rules to allow the unlicensed operation of wireless communication devices in unused television band spectrum between channels 2 and 51. These vacant and unassigned television channels, known as the TV “white spaces,” would help make affordable wireless broadband in rural America a reality.

Although wireless is seen as critical to bringing high-speed and affordable broadband access to rural America, build-out and adoption of this service has been slow. Larger wireless providers have focused exclusively on mobile broadband and have not deployed a residential or business wireless broadband service that can serve as a substitute to DSL or cable access in rural areas. If wireless access is available, it is likely provided by local commercial wireless internet service providers (WISPs), rural local exchange telephone carriers (RLECs) or by local communities and governments, utilizing unlicensed spectrum. However, the current availability of unlicensed spectrum that spurs these networks is largely inadequate. Local providers and communities will need access to additional higher quality, low-frequency spectrum in order to expand coverage areas and improve the quality of service for both fixed and mobile access.

Unlicensed access to the TV “white spaces” would fill the need by WISPs and RLECs for additional and better spectrum, while also creating additional opportunities for local governments and entrepreneurs to bring affordable wireless broadband to underserved communities. Open and free access to the airwaves would lower barriers to entry, facilitate innovation and enable what Google co-founder Larry Page recently called “WiFi on steroids.” Signals in the TV band travel far greater distances at lower power and are far less susceptible to physical obstructions by trees, hills and buildings. These unique propagation characteristics can reduce network build-out costs and improve service both outdoors and indoors. The vast majority of white spaces are in rural areas, providing an enormous opportunity for local communities, governments and service providers to transform unused TV channels into rocket-fuel for wireless broadband.