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The White Space Opportunity for Rural Broadband

Representative Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) and I recently circulated a Joint Resolution related to white space technology and its potential for filling in some of the gaps in rural broadband connectivity statewide. The resolution, while not binding, was written to encourage the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to officially leave three channels of white space open for anyone to use. This is the key decision that needs to occur before white space options for rural broadband will be deployed throughout the United States.
According to the FCC, “television stations often operate on the same or adjacent channels.  However, to avoid interference between each other, television stations are often operated in geographically separate areas.  Further, there are areas of the country where, because of population density, not all television channels are utilized.  This unused spectrum between TV stations -- called white spaces -- represents a valuable opportunity for our changing wireless mobile landscape.”
Broadband via white space uses the low frequency, unused spectrum between TV stations to deliver high-speed internet service.  Experts at Microsoft say that broadband via this spectrum operates four times faster and can reach 16 times further than broadband deployed via Wi-Fi. The low frequency enables the signal to move through static obstacles like hills and foliage. For this reason, Microsoft estimates that this technology may be able to reach 80% of rural households that are not currently receiving affordable broadband service via fiber or fixed wireless connections. 
The structure of broadband over white space relies on a location that receives high-speed broadband via a fiber connection.  This location is then equipped with an antennae and equipment to broadcast the broadband signal via the low frequency whitespace in that location to receivers within 10 miles.  Microsoft’s pilot projects have also been able to relay from multiple points, thus adding the potential for expanding an additional 10-mile radius from each relay point while maintaining good speeds.
Our current challenge is that white space is not guaranteed. The FCC manages the spectrum and auctions parts of the spectrum to private corporations to deploy products and services to consumers.  Through these auctions, specific pieces of the spectrum become dedicated to the services of individual companies. However, as TV continues to transition to digital platforms, more and more cable TV spectrum is open and available.
This is why we are asking the FCC to officially and formally determine that at least three white space channels will remain open for public use. This decision will provide the certainty and predictability that private businesses are waiting for in order to fully invest and deploy broadband over white space.
The equipment for deploying white space for rural broadband is currently expensive because it is not being manufactured or used on a broad scale. Once service providers and manufacturers have certainty that the white space is available for their use throughout the nation, the demand will increase and the costs will decrease.
I had the privilege of chairing the Study Committee on Rural Broadband in 2016. As you may remember, this committee spent months studying rural broadband and the best ways for the State of Wisconsin to support private sector investment to expand into unserved communities.   The work we did on this committee was included in the state budget that we passed last year. 
In addition to at least $11 million in new Broadband Expansion Grants, we also fine-tuned the grant program so that new technology, like white space technology, would be eligible for state support. I am sure glad we did that.  The white space opportunity demonstrates exactly why we must be nimble and willing to try new technology to meet the needs of rural families.
As state legislators, we cannot enact legislation to make this happen, but I believe that we have done what we can to encourage private investment into infrastructure by contributing to broadband expansion projects.  We are also working to educate our communities and connect them to possible solutions. If the FCC responds to our request and white space technology becomes a wider option, I will be reaching out to the communities I represent to share this idea.
For more information on white space technology, I would encourage you to review the FCC’s website related to white space: https://www.fcc.gov/general/white-space
I would also recommend reviewing Microsoft’s pilot projects related to white space, several of which are currently being developed for Wisconsin: https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2017/07/10/rural-broadband-strategy-connecting-rural-america-new-opportunities/
You are also welcome to reach out to the FCC to encourage this decision, as well as to our Federal congressmen and senators to encourage their advocacy for this decision. Send your thoughts to the Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai at ajit.pai@fcc.gov or write to the FCC – 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20554.   You will find contact information for your Federal legislators at www.usa.gov/elected-officials.
As I continue my work on your behalf, I encourage you to connect with me!  Please visit my website http://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/17/marklein. Every press release, column and E-Update is archived here for you.  I would also encourage you to subscribe to my weekly E-Update by sending an email to Sen.Marklein@legis.wisconsin.gov.  Do not hesitate to call 800-978-8008 if you have input, ideas or need assistance with any state-related matters.