Broadcasters don’t like it, but a national push for TV airwaves to be used for internet expansion in rural areas is catching on in Wisconsin.
Lawmakers in the state Assembly approved a joint resolution encouraging federal regulators to enable broader use of so-called “white space” technology in under-connected areas on Thursday, weeks after Gov. Scott Walker released a similar statement.
Groups like the Wisconsin Technology Council, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance have also come out in support of white space broadband, joining a Microsoft-led coalition called Connect Americans Now that’s calling for Federal Communications Commission action on the issue.
The concept isn’t new: For years, there have been discussions of taking unused radio frequencies between TV channels to transmit internet data across the countryside, from towers to roof-mounted antennas in consumers’ homes. However, white space technology is still young, and has only recently emerged as a potential solution in rural broadband policy discussions.
Microsoft has long tinkered with white space technology, running pilot programs on its campus in Redmond, Washington, and in locations in Africa. Last year, it began talking about the technology more seriously: It released a white paper advocating for its use to expand broadband access in rural America. This January, it launched Connect Americans Now.
White space connections are currently capable of speeds of about 5 to 10 megabits per second, said Mitchell — “which many of us consider very slow,” he said. Those speeds would likely improve over time.
Zach Cikanek, a spokesperson for the coalition that visited Madison last week to promote the campaign at a Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon, said that he believes the excitement is already there. He asserted that what ISPs and manufacturers really need is some assurance from federal regulators that white space broadband can be a safe bet.
“The technology has reached a point where it’s ready to go,” said Cikanek. “The trick now is to have that regulatory certainty.”
The coalition specifically wants rules that would keep three channels in any given market open for unlicensed broadband use, instead of television use. The frequencies in question are ones below 700 megahertz, that are well-suited to traversing hilly or forested terrain.
Broadcasters say the FCC has already been reorganizing TV channels to free up white space for broadband use through “spectrum auctions.” Their argument is that Microsoft should have paid for a slice of the airwaves as part of that process.
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