Sharing spectrum will close the rural digital divide

Sharing spectrum will close the rural digital divide
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Sharing is caring, or so we’ve been taught. It’s a good principle not just from a moral point of view, but from a technology standpoint, too. 

Take, for instance, the Internet. Federal Communications Commission statistics show that between 17 and 27 million rural Americans lack broadband (depending on how one defines “high-speed”), marginalizing their participation in the digital economy. Fifteen percent of our working population — or 37 million individuals over the age of 16 — lives in these areas, yet a vast majority of them don’t have access to high-speed broadband services.

New fixed wireless services could share the internet’s broadband promise overnight, but legislators are having a tough time deciding how. Nowhere can this struggle be better seen than in the sandbox scuffle to repack the so-called C-band radio spectrum. 

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For decades, the C-band — a massive, 500 MHz swath of frequencies in the “mid-band” of the radio spectrum — has been almost the exclusive playground of the satellite industry, helping deliver programming Americans get on their TV, cable and radio networks. Outdated FCC policies have given satellite earth stations inordinate protection from interference, leading to a gross underutilization of the band.

Because demand ceaselessly increases and useful spectrum is scarce, policymakers at the FCC and in Congress are looking into how the C-band can be better utilized. It possesses tremendous coverage and capacity benefits for hauling lots of data over varying terrain.

Two major proposals have emerged seeking to divvy up the fallow C-band. One proposal from an alliance of foreign satellite providers is pushing hard to quickly, and privately, sell off up to 500 MHz of that spectrum to large mobile providers for 5G wireless services, donating an undefined portion of those proceeds to the Treasury, and leaving the remaining 300 MHz still underutilized.

Another proposal favors an FCC auction and sharing of the band. It would clear 200 MHz for mobile providers via FCC auction, sending those billions directly into the Treasury. For the remaining 300 MHz, it would require coordinated sharing between satellite earth stations and fixed wireless providers, who would gain access to needed spectrum to deliver services to underserved rural Americans.

The solution to the rural digital divide hangs in the balance.

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The economics of broadband mean that if we take an auction-only approach to the C-band, America’s heartland won’t soon see new broadband services like 5G. 5G infrastructure is just too expensive to run into the hinterlands, so spectrum dedicated to those providers will be deployed in the more lucrative urban markets first, leaving spectrum in rural markets in the spectrum warehouse. Even if a portion of those proceeds are used to fund rural broadband buildout, it would take years to get broadband out there.

In contrast, sharing a significant part of the C-band would allow small fixed wireless providers who are already serving rural America access to that valuable spectrum — companies like Amplex in Toledo, Ohio; MicroLogic in Buckhannon, West Virginia; and Wisper ISP in Mascoutah, Illinois, all members of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) who would jump at the chance to get at that spectrum for their customers.

The result? Virtually overnight, communities that didn’t have broadband access would see near-gigabit speed service for their farms, businesses, public institutions and homes, helping the lion’s share of rural America’s working population compete with their urban counterparts.

Of course, the question remains: Can C-band sharing even be done without harmful interference?

In a word — Yes.

A study commissioned by WISPA, Google and Microsoft conservatively concludes that through a combination of geographic separation and earth station-aware coordination, more than 80 million Americans could receive fixed wireless services in the band. Exclusion zones that protect earth stations can effectively be limited to less than 7 miles without causing harmful interference to those earth stations. This has tremendous implications for decreasing the digital divide, especially in rural areas where earth stations are fewer and more dispersed.

You’d think that policymakers would be as excited: Here we have a proposal that protects incumbents from harmful interference, provides big mobile with needed spectrum for 5G, and gives small rural fixed wireless providers the resources to serve their isolated communities with state-of-the-art broadband. What’s more, billions would go to federal coffers for the auctioned-off spectrum, not into the pockets of foreign corporations.

This largely tracks proposals the FCC is considering to free up the C-band.

Congress, unfortunately, may be going in a different direction. The leading bills in the House and Senate create a sandbox in which only the foreign satellite companies and big mobile can play, choosing regimes without any sharing. Apparently, it’s their way or they’re going to take their ball and go home.

Congress has an obligation to be more evenhanded. Others can share the sandbox.

The C-band, as well as other radio spectrum, is ripe for sharing.

Congress can show it truly cares about closing the rural-urban internet divide and foster such approaches where feasible. Doing otherwise — that is, promoting spectrum warehousing — would consign rural Americans as second-class participants in our digital economy.

Claude Aiken is president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the voice of the fixed wireless broadband industry. Prior to joining WISPA, Aiken worked at the FCC, where he served as staff attorney and as advisor to Chairman Tom Wheeler and to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Follow him on Twitter @ctaiken