The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a new kind of reality, the digital-everything kind of reality, where everything from schools to doctor visits, business meetings, and happy hours have shifted online. It has reminded us of the importance of broadband access and the need to enable the use of promising technologies such as TV white spaces (TVWS) and low earth orbit satellites to close the broadband gap.
According to the latest figures from the FCC, 80 percent of King William County’s residents in Virginia, located a 30-minute drive from Richmond, lack access to broadband. The problem is even more pervasive at the national level where approximately 30 million Americans cannot access broadband, and only 65 percent of Americans in rural areas can access reliable and fast internet service. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the impacts of the digital divide, broadband becoming a precondition to carry on with daily life and participate in today’s economy.
A greater deployment of non-traditional broadband access technologies is key to closing the digital gap, and something that the FCC has allocated resources and attention to.
TVWS — the unused spectrum in between TV channels — would be one such technology which could offer a cheaper and more viable means to connect to the internet at high speeds compared to laying cable to reach remote communities. Some towns have already implemented TVWS internet.
For example, with the TVWS network up and running, residents of Wilmington, NC, can access Wi-Fi in public parks, while authorities are able to use broadband to control municipal functions, like street lighting and security cameras. Claudville, Virginia is another example of a rural community that is able to enjoy broadband connectivity due to a pilot program that connected small businesses, homes, schools, and even the local post office to broadband Internet.
Beyond the potential to offer better broadband coverage, the technology can unlock further innovative applications, including IoT, smart ag, and telemedicine. The current circumstances and the lack of broadband access limit the economic potential of rural communities. Farmers are unable to access innovative precision agriculture tools, while patients are denied access to telemedicine solutions that can improve care and reduce costs.
As with any new technologies, regulators are needed to streamline regulations and help pave the way forward. The FCC has played a pivotal role in enhancing the pace, scale, and cost-effectiveness of broadband deployments in unserved and underserved rural communities, including through the use of TVWS technology.
Accommodating to a new normal has meant an increased reliance on broadband access. Yet, there are neighborhoods and communities across the country which lack the infrastructure to participate in this digital economy and to carry on with daily life, whether that’s paying bills, buying goods and services, completing homework assignments, or seeking medical care via telehealth.
To close the digital divide, which is key to improving the country’s resiliency in times of crisis, the deployment of non-traditional broadband access technologies needs to be accelerated. Until then, millions of Americans are waiting to get connected.