FCC’s Pai proposes TV White Space updates to help rural areas

Rural (Pixabay)
The FCC chairman said TV white spaces can play a critical role in providing broadband services to rural and underserved areas. (Pixabay)

Efforts to make better use of TV white space spectrum moved forward with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s announcement that a proposal will be on the February 28 meeting agenda.

Specifically, Pai is proposing to permit higher transmit power and higher antennas for fixed white space devices in rural areas, allowing white space devices to reach users at greater distances. Higher power also would enable signals to better penetrate foliage, buildings and other obstacles. 

TVWS devices operate in portions of the broadcast television bands (channels 2-35) and spectrum not being used for authorized services. School districts in some parts of the country already use TVWS to provide internet service to students so that they can do their homework.

“TV white spaces can play a critical role in providing broadband services to rural and underserved areas,” Pai said in a statement (PDF).  “I saw the promise of this technology in South Boston, a town in rural Virginia, where I met a student who said getting Internet access in his home was a game-changer.  The FCC has taken steps to enable the use of white spaces over the years, and this new proposal would further help bridge the digital divide while protecting TV stations.”

Because white space device operations must protect other authorized services from interference, Chairman Pai is also proposing to increase the minimum required separation distances for white space devices operating at higher power.

Wi-Fi advocates and companies like Microsoft for years have been touting the TVWS as ideal for broadband services in rural areas. Microsoft has been lobbying the FCC to move forward and adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider improvements to white space rules discussed in its Petition for Rulemaking that was filed in May 2019.

RELATED: Microsoft soldiers on with its TV white spaces initiative

WifiForward, which represents Microsoft, Google, Comcast and others, commended the chairman for this move, saying companies and communities around the country and the world are making the unused TV spectrum available on an unlicensed basis to deliver super-fast broadband connections.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) expects the proposal, if adopted, will lead to a whole new ecosystem for hardware, software and internet providers due to the spectrum's more attractive propagation characteristics.

“The proposed changes not only make the technological marketplace more robust, it will also be a boon to important U.S. communications policy objectives. Better TVWS services will provide another tool in the quiver of rural providers, such as our WISP members, who are looking for all the spectrum they can access to grow their small, local companies and help close the rural divide. Quite simply, better TVWS services will bring more rural Americans online and participating in our digital economy,” said Louis Peraertz, VP of Policy for WISPA, in a statement.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project, which is part of New America’s Open Technology Institute, said the proposal is a significant step toward bridging the broadband divide in rural, Tribal and unserved areas.

“Under the proposal, farms, schools and rural internet providers will be able to harness the power of unused TV spectrum to extend Wi-Fi and other unlicensed wireless technologies, helping to narrow the homework gap, fuel precision agriculture and extend connectivity to less populated parts of the country,” Calabrese stated.

The FCC will vote on Pai’s proposal, which he circulated with fellow commissioners on Wednesday, at the commission’s next open meeting at the end of the month. If it’s adopted, the public will then have a chance to submit comments before final rules are adopted.