Simple fixes to bridge the digital divide

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Like many areas across rural America, whether it is a student struggling to gain access to online educational resources or a business struggling to make their products or services available online, Montana faces the very real problem of reliable broadband coverage.

It’s unacceptable.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 19 million rural Americans lack a broadband connection, including 40 percent of rural Montanans. While there is sufficient evidence that number overstates broadband availability, the FCC’s current calculations suggest that more people than the combined populations of the United States’ five largest cities are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.

We can’t afford to overlook the implications of the digital divide. Due to population growth, food demand is expected to outpace production by 70 percent within the next 40 years. Precision agriculture tools can help farmers prepare for this changing world by increasing production and conserving resources, but most of these advancements require a broadband connection.

But the need to bridge the digital divide doesn’t end with farming. A recent study found that some 12 million students lack a broadband connection at home, but 70 percent of teachers assign online homework. These students are being deprived of critical learning tools as fundamental as library access.

Furthermore, this digital divide has a measurable impact on opportunity in rural America. In fact, the International Telecommunications Union conducted an analysis that found a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration translates to a GDP increase of .82 percent.

While members of Congress such as Senators Wicker (MS) and Klobuchar (MN) are making commendable, bipartisan pushes to expand connectivity, and agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continue to prioritize this issue, the FCC posses the greatest ability to reshape policies that will help bridge the digital divide.

In March, the Federal Communications Commission finalized two proceedings that began removing the regulatory barriers holding back TV white spaces (TVWS) technology – a promising solution that allows internet service providers to deploy broadband signals through unused spectrum between broadcast television stations, reducing the need to expand costly fiber infrastructure and offering a means to provide affordable broadband services to rural customers. Critically, a TVWS broadband signal can travel as far as nine miles through buildings and dense forests.

Best of all, TV white spaces is not a solution in the early stages of its development. Microsoft has entered into numerous commercial partnerships with internet service providers (ISPs) across the country to bring broadband to consumers who were previously on the wrong side of the digital divide through TV white spaces technology.

One of these deployments is a partnership right here in Montana with Native Network that will eventually provide broadband to more than 70,000 unserved people across rural Montana and Washington.

Despite this promise, onerous and outdated FCC rules that make it difficult to deploy TV white spaces persist, which in turn limit investments in the technology, drive up the price of equipment and ultimately keep rural Americans offline. Microsoft recently filed a Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC that would remove these outdated regulatory barriers.

The changes are noncontroversial and include measures like allowing TVWS antennas to operate at 500 meters above the ground as opposed to 250, allowing TVWS devices to operate at higher power levels and enabling more IoT capabilities.

We hope that the FCC will continue to take concrete steps to free up regulatory certainty for American entrepreneurs who are working hard to bring broadband access to rural communities across the country.

Richard Cullen is the executive director of Connect Americans Now, which includes a chapter of the organization in Montana.

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