Can Unused TV Signals Be Repurposed for Broadband?

Some researchers believe that the unused broadcasting space might be the perfect way to deliver Internet connectivity.

by John Green, The Hutchinson News / April 13, 2018
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(TNS) — A small pilot project in Scott County, Kan., is part of a national movement to convince the Federal Communications Commission to reserve unused television broadcasting space around the country for use by broadband providers.

Regional internet and telephone provider Pioneer Communications, using a grant from Microsoft, is providing about a half dozen homes in the county with an internet connection using signals within the television signal spectrum broadcast from towers.

"What we're talking about is the bandwidth below the 700 megahertz range, where a lot of TV channels historically occupied public airwaves before the digital transition in 2009," said Zachary Cikanek, national spokesperson for Connect Americans Now and a Washington, D.C. lobbyist.

Digital TV signals use less of the spectrum than UHF or VHF signals, so there are now vacant channels previously designated for television.

"The reason TV broadcasters used these channels was that they can carry a high data signal over a long distance, through foliage, over hills, and through walls, and still carry a powerful signal with a lot of data," Cikanek said. "This spectrum is in the sweet spot."

Radio waves can carry a much farther distance, but they can't carry nearly the amount of data, he said. Broadband signals sent by 3G and 4G technology, on the other hand, travel shorter distances and often need line-of-sight receivers.

The group is asking the FCC to reserve at least three channels in every state order to provide enough broadband space for every market across the county.

"Right now FCC regulations allow for TV white space broadband over one channel," he explained. "A second regulation, allowing for temporary use of a second channel, is pending final regulatory approval. It's not finalized, but we're using those two channels to allow us to demonstrate its effectiveness.

"In every market, they're already vacant, but we need regulatory certainty they'll remain available for broadband in the future. If we have three channels, that's enough to deliver the full broadband spectrum needed by the modern consumer and to do it in every market in the country."

The signal would be delivered similarly to cell service, only on a different frequency, with the provider sending the signal to a tower, which then transmits it to a router in the home that would be programmed to receive specific channels.

The space is unlicensed, so broadband providers would not have to buy the spectrum, and it wouldn't be limited to just one provider. The technology is especially important in rural areas where there are only a few homes per mile and the cost of stringing fiber is prohibitively expensive.

Wide-open spaces

Pilot projects are currently running in about a dozen locations around the country. The pilot in Scott County began last October. Initial results were not as successful as hoped because of signal interference, officials at Pioneer said in December, but technicians were still "working through the challenges."

Latest reports, Cikanek said, were positive. The News was unable to reach Pioneer for an update.

The technology will likely work best in wide-open spaces, with little broadcast "congestion," said Kasey Krueger, Director of Marketing at Pioneer Communications. Microsoft has launched similar successful efforts in Africa.

A study was done for Microsoft by a company called Boston Consulting Group, which found that using TV white spaces is also useful in more densely populated areas, particularly for expanding coverage within buildings.

The group determined the technologies do not interfere with TV broadcast reception or licensed wireless microphones that use the same spectrum band.

That study found the use of TV white space is more cost-effective when combined with other technologies, though it was the best approach to reach some 80 percent of underserved rural populations.

Combing white space technology with fiber and satellite delivery could cut costs over fiber alone by about 80 percent and over LTE fixed wireless by 50 percent, the study found.

While Connect American Now partners include some major corporation and associations across the U.S., including Microsoft and the National Rural Education Association, in Kansas partners include the Lincoln, Rooks and Russell County economic development associations.

"We're trying to rally rural voices, to make sure people who can't get online easily are heard in Washington," he said. "Our coalition has surpassed 100 members a few weeks ago."

The most important thing, Cicanek said, is that the FCC has made delivery of rural broadband a priority and the debate over the use of white space remains open.

"We haven't had the commitment we need yet, in terms of ensuring at least three channels in every market in the country, but we're making progress on that front," he said. "We're building excitement among lawmakers and leaders around the issue."

He suggested consumers contact the FCC and their Congressional representatives to also lobby for the commitment.

More information can be found at their website, connectamericansnow.com.

©2018 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.