Krisztina Puzok, American Consumer Institute
The use of TV white spaces (TVWS) — the unused spectrum in between TV channels — has brought telehealth services to residents in Logan, OH, broadband access to a remotely located elementary school in Claudeville, VA, and a smart grid to Plumas County, CA. Meanwhile more than 25 percent of people living in rural United States lack access to broadband, according to the latest figures from the FCC. With COVID-19 only further exacerbating the impacts of digital divide, further regulatory guidance is needed to make TV white space technology part of the solution for connecting currently underserved consumers at price points appropriate for large rural and remote populations.
It’s been more than a decade since the first white space-based wireless broadband network was established in Claudville, VA, bringing broadband to a previously unserved population. TVWS has already proven to be an effective and important tool for hybrid network deployments and given the current pandemic which continues to exacerbate disparities in health, education, and economic equity, access to affordable and reliable broadband has never been more important.
The extent of the digital divide problem is difficult to gauge. The FCC estimates that more than 21 million Americans, disproportionately in the rural areas, lack access to fast internet. According to Microsoft, and a different methodology, the problem is much more serious, with 157 million Americans not having access to fast internet. Either way, the problem is dire and urgent.
With an unprecedented number of Americans now heavily reliant on broadband access for telework, telehealth, and online education, lack of access to the internet is depriving millions of Americans to participate in today’s economy and even carry on with daily life. With one in five students not having access to high speed internet and a computer at home in the state of California, the future of these students is highly dependent on policies that maximize the use of innovative technologies and promote efficient spectrum use in underserved communities.
The new digital-everything reality that the COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly forced on us has made at least one thing clear, and that’s that we rely on broadband connectivity to carry on with daily life, whether that’s food shopping, paying bills, completing homework assignments, seeking medical care, and checking up on loved ones.
The current crisis has the potential to accelerate progress on this front, but it also has the potential to accelerate the digital divide. Regulators need to focus their resources and efforts on avoiding the latter and work on clearing regulatory barriers to greater deployment of technologies that seek to eliminate the digital divide. The FCC should continue the work on improving the pace, scale, and cost-effectiveness of broadband deployments in unserved and underserved rural communities, including through the use of TVWS technology. Further efforts by the Commission remain highly critical.
In a world where we have never been so connected, we have also never been so disconnected. What the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is that technology is an empty promise without connectivity. The deployment of non-traditional broadband access technologies like TVWS is crucial and needs to be accelerated to prevent further deepening of the digital divide.
Krisztina Pusok is the Director of Policy and Research at the American Consumer Institute.