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Tech Today: How TV Whitespace Impacts the Internet

Bowling Green, KY. (September 11, 2018) - In rural areas of the country, people still “adjust the rabbit ears” to get better television reception. But imagine if that were your connection to the internet. While most wouldn’t be up for adjusting the antenna or wrapping tin foil on the “rabbit ears,” TV whitespace technology seeks to utilize the unused frequencies in the broadcast TV spectrum. Those spaces exist because there isn’t a broadcaster using the given frequency, and there’s built-in space between stations to avoid interference.

Much like when you use broadcast TV to watch your favorite sitcom on the local network affiliate, whitespace doesn’t require line-of-site and offers hope that it could deliver broadband service in rural settings that have traditionally been difficult to service with other wireless broadband technologies.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) first made spectrum available for whitespace use in 2010, and while there have been some successful deployments, the technology has not been widely adopted.

There are a few hurdles that whitespace technology faces. One of the most significant is the lack of contiguous channels to transmit on across the country. As TV broadcasters reuse spectrum from region to region, there are often only a small number of channels available for the use of broadband deployment, and often they’re broken up diminishing the ability to transmit higher bandwidth across those frequencies.Weather 300x195

To help providers identify areas and corresponding channels, the FCC authorized the development of databases that assist in understanding the number of channels available in a given area. Google operates one such database, and below is a view of what that database reveals about parts of AL, GA, KY, NC, TN,& VA:

Microsoft has been engaged in development of whitespace for many years, but in 2017, it announced the Microsoft Airband initiative. It initially sought to build out 12 pilot programs in 12 states, and has since developed new partnerships in several U.S. communities to expand that project and its potential impact.

Microsoft states that its mission through the Airband initiative is to “partner with equipment makers, internet and energy access providers, and local entrepreneurs to make affordable broadband access a reality for communities around the world.” Microsoft’s mission statement touches on one of the major barriers to the technology—equipment.

There are very few equipment vendors that have worked on developing whitespace equipment. Research and development can be very costly, and with no strict rules around how whitespaces can be used and nearly every geographic deployment having different amounts of spectrum available, it’s difficult to develop the equipment. However, there are a few companies that have been working on the program, such as Carlson Wireless.

Delivery of services on whitespace, however, might sound slow given the deployment of fiber and other new technologies. Carlson Wireless notes in the FAQ on its website that a three-to- seven mile transmit area is likely with speeds between 12-16 Mbps possible. These are speeds far slower than other technologies but with the ability to transmit in non-line of site conditions on unlicensed spectrum, it could bring high-speed internet to areas that simply haven't had an option in the past. Below is a part of a Carlson infographic on some of the benefits.Chart 300x180

With companies like Microsoft and others looking to develop partnerships to deploy whitespace technology, there’s a greater likelihood that equipment vendors may become more serious about developing the technology. So far, there’s simply been too much fluidity around deploying the technology for providers to broadly adopt it, and it’s caused manufacturing of the necessary equipment to be much more expensive than other more common wireless technologies.

Kerr Wes 02 Best 200x300 Wes Kerr is the Director of Community Solutions for Connected Nation

As a technology and concept, TV whitespace has promise in some rural areas, however there are a lot of variables that have delayed widespread development and deployment. Microsoft and its partners’ involvement have boosted interest, and that may impact some areas of the country and lead to services that have not been available in the past.

However, new technologies are being developed that may make it really hard for whitespace to gain much of a viable market, and eventually those technologies could actually provide greater capacity and a stronger case for development.

About the Author: Wes Kerr is the Director of Community Solutions for Connected Nation. Wes helps ensure the implementation of Technology Action Plans developed for communities through Connected Nation’s Connected Community Engagement Program (Connectedsm) and works closely with clients and stakeholders to provide solutions that will help them meet their technology goals.