The Federal Communications Commission operated for the first seven months of 2017 with just a quarterback, a running back, and a single lineman. While the work being done during that time was targeted and focused, the team was incomplete. The Senate voted in August to confirm two commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr, to fill existing vacant slots at the agency, and it wasn't until October that the Senate finally voted to reconfirm Chairman Ajit Pai. The full agency is now on the field, and can get down to the business of improving communications across the country.
The substantial FCC playbook includes 10 broadband progress reports and two rural broadband reports since 1999. The most recent rural broadband report was released on June 12, 2011, and the last broadband report was issued on Jan. 29, 2016. Because of changes in technology and further expansion of broadband across the nation, both of these playbooks need an update.
While the Universal Service Fund and Rural Utilities Service are supposed to help bridge the telecommunications gap between the served and unserved, it remains difficult and expensive to build broadband infrastructure to rural communities, due to both terrain and distance between network end-points. Along with the FCC’s efforts to move the goal post closer by restructuring the Connect America Fund to distribute more funding to unserved areas of the country, private sector companies are seeking solutions to help bridge the digital divide.
For example, Microsoft announced in June that it would begin advancing the use of television white space channels (TVWS) for its broadband initiatives in 12 states by forming partnerships with rural broadband providers to help connect homes in rural communities.
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 two-fold: 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.
To support the use of TVWS for broadband in rural areas, three usable TV channels need to be cleared in every media market across the country. This can be accomplished through the spectrum repacking process currently underway at the FCC because of the recent forward and reverse auctions. In July a bipartisan group of 42 representatives wrote to the FCC asking that at least three 6 MHz TVWS 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 will 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.
Members of Congress are also making proposals regarding broadband across rural America, some of which are duplicative and unnecessary. For example, legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate, the Improving Broadband Access for Veterans Act of 2017, requiring the FCC to produce a report that would specifically examine veterans’ access to broadband in rural areas. It goes without saying that if a rural community does not have access to broadband, then the veterans living in that community also do not have access to broadband. Rather than focus on one segment of the rural population, however deserving, Congress should ask the FCC to completely update both the national and rural broadband progress reports to provide a fuller understanding of the existing gaps in service for all Americans.
Whether it is by reducing the regulatory burden on providers, particularly those in small rural communities; streamlining the application process to access the Universal Service Fund’s high-cost program that provides infrastructure grants to rural communities where it is costly to build high-speed networks; allowing for innovative use of unused spectrum in TVWS; or exploring new ways to deploy next generation communications capabilities, it is time for Team FCC to work together to update its playbook and score more points for taxpayers and consumers.
Deborah Collier serves as the director of technology and telecommunications policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government.