Groups seeking to use airwaves to broadcast internet in rural SD

April 4, 2018

A new effort to expand access to broadband internet service in rural areas is gaining steam and asking for access to unused TV channels.

South Dakota is one of 12 states named last summer by tech giant Microsoft as a testing ground for what it calls the Rural Airband Initiative. The idea is to use a radio frequency spectrum currently used by broadcast TV stations to transmit a broadband internet signal far further than most internet has been broadcasted before and through buildings, trees and mountains.

Doing this, Microsoft says, will give rural communities and their often far flung residents who don’t currently have access to high-speed internet an affordable way to connect. It’s more affordable because broadcasting a set of radio waves requires far less infrastructure than either 4G or hard-line internet access, advocates of the idea say.

One of the chief advocates for the plan is the non-profit Connect Americans Now. The group’s spokesman Zach Cikanek spoke with the Capital Journal last Friday. He said that bringing down the cost of broadband expansion could be a boon to rural Americans.

“Hospitals in rural areas pay an average of three times more for internet than hospitals in urban areas,” Cikanek said.

Using TV airwaves as part of a mix of technologies to expand broadcast internet access can be 80 percent less expensive than building out fiber optic-only infrastructure, Cikanek said.

Broadcast TV stations, which offer local news programming as well as network TV broadcasts, use the spectrum of radio frequencies found between 600 megahertz and 700 megahertz. Not every channel in that spectrum is used so there can be space between channels to prevent interference. The unused channels have picked up the nickname white space.

TV signals can travel further and through obstacles because they have a longer wavelength than, say, a wifi router or a cellular telephone signal. The TV signal can’t carry quite as much data as a signal with a tighter wavelength but it’s enough to get decent internet speeds to homes, Cikanek said.

That’s why Microsoft and a few other companies as well as Connect America Now, want to use the whitespace between TV channels to broadcast an internet signal. Microsoft, for it’s part, announced its Rural Airband Initiative in July of 2017 but has been working for the better part of a decade on similar projects around the world.

The idea sounds great, in theory, but there are number of detractors. Chief among them is the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents American TV broadcasters. That group says the use of TV white space has, heretofore, proven unworkable and dedicating the minimum of three channels in all markets to internet access could mean rural residents might lose local news channels.

“This would jeopardize local broadcast news, programming and lifeline emergency information for millions of Americans. The FCC and Members of Congress should not be fooled by Microsoft’s empty promises,” NAB executive vice president for communications said in a statement issued in August 2017 about Microsoft’s Airband project.

This story as been updated to reflect two corrections.