George Plaven/Capital Press
When advocates of providing high-speed broadband to all corners of America talk about the “digital divide,” they are talking about places like Gilliam County, Ore.
From the waterfront along the Columbia River in Arlington to the rolling wheat fields surrounding Condon, the county spans 1,200 square miles and roughly 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Many homesteads and farms are tucked away at the bottom of steep canyons, where wireless internet struggles to penetrate.
That creates a challenge for elderly residents who rely on the convenience of telemedicine, and farmers who would like to fit their tractors with GPS steering, said Gilliam County Judge Steve Shaffer. Shaffer spoke Jan. 25 at a community forum in Salem hosted by Connect Americans Now, a coalition dedicated to eliminating the digital divide by 2022.
Specifically, the group has homed in on using what are known as TV white spaces to deliver rural broadband.
“This is a technology that we think will really work for us,” Shaffer said.
TV white space refers to unused television channels on the broadcast spectrum that act as a buffer to avoid interference between active channels. The broadcast spectrum ranges from low-frequency bands like AM radio, which can travel great distances at low data volume, to high-frequency bands like Wi-Fi, which travel shorter distances at much higher volume.
Joe Conradi, national outreach director for Connect Americans Now, said TV white space is the sweet spot between the two, able to reach long enough distances at enough volume for rural broadband.
What the market needs, Conradi said, is regulatory certainty from the Federal Communications Commission. Connect Americans Now launched Jan. 2 and is urging the FCC to leave at least three TV white space channels open in every market, luring much-needed investment to communities like Gilliam County and its population of 1,900.
Fiber will always be the gold standard for internet, Conradi said, but he estimated it would cost $60 billion-$80 billion to bridge the digital divide using fiber alone. That’s why a combination of technologies, including TV white space, is a key part of the strategy, he said.
“The most important thing is we need to put pressure on the FCC,” Conradi said.
More than 34 million Americans, including 23.4 million in rural areas, are without access to reliable broadband, according to Connect Americans Now. Microsoft, through its Rural Airband Initiative, is now working toward a device to turn TV white space into rural broadband, though it has drawn some opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters.
In July 2017, the NAB issued a statement that the proposal “threatens millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming,” and that Microsoft’s white space technology has been a “well-documented, unmitigated failure.”
Conradi said the coalition has gained some allies in Congress, and has had “great conversations” with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who represents rural eastern and central Oregon. Earlier this year, Walden issued a statement praising two executive orders signed by President Donald Trump aimed at improving rural broadband service.
“Too many rural communities in Oregon lack the broadband access they need to join the 21st century economy,” Walden said. “I hear this all too frequently from my constituents.”
Several Oregon cities and counties have already signed on to Connect Americans Now, as well as the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. OCA spokeswoman Mary Jo Foley-Birrenkott discussed how the internet has become increasingly important for farmers and ranchers to access real-time commodity markets, weather reports and precision agriculture tools.
“Agriculture is the lifeblood of these rural areas,” Foley-Birrenkott said. “Any way they can become more efficient and build those business plans helps facilitate the survival of those towns.”
Apart from farming, Conradi said broadband is crucial for small businesses, schools and health care in small-town America.
“Some of these communities really face extinction within the next 10 years if they don’t get on the right side of this digital divide,” he said.