Closing America's Digital Divide

Closing America's Digital Divide
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Internet access is virtually universal among Americans from households earning $100,000 or more a year. Yet, half of U.S. adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year do not have home broadband services. Moreover, urban and suburban Americans are twice as likely as rural Americans to use the internet.

For years the federal government has made attempts to close this digital divide. However, high costs and technological glitches have stymied any real progress. Of the 34 million Americans who lack access to broadband today, 23.4 million of them live in rural areas. And, according to the Pew Research Center, “the size of this group has changed little over the past three years, despite recent government and social service programs to encourage internet adoption.” 

Enter Microsoft. The technology giant announced earlier this summer that it hopes to close the digital divide in America by extending broadband services to millions of rural Americans over the next five years. The company’s plan is to leverage so-called white space technology, “tapping buffer zones separating individual television channels in airwaves that could be cheaper than existing methods such as laying fiber-optic cable.”

Here we have a problem solved not by government fiat or bureaucracy, but by the private sector trailblazing a path forward, bringing broadband connectivity into the 21st Century. Microsoft’s Rural Air Band Initiative seeks to expand broadband coverage by using the unused spectrum between TV broadcasts, i.e., white space. This frequency range is powerful and affordable, and “known as Super Wi-Fi because the signals can travel over hills and through walls, durability that allowed rural communities to access TV news.”

Greater connectivity always leads to greater information. And we know that more information leads to more opportunities — for better education and, consequently, higher incomes. However, for Microsoft’s plan to work, federal and state regulators must approve the use of these effectively unused TV channels.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), however, has filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opposing Microsoft’s plans to use white spaces. For those of us who peruse the history channel, NAB’s opposition comes across like an obsolete stagecoach company from “olden days” not wanting its idle, dirt trails to be paved for automobiles — i.e., last century vs. modernity.

In modern society, what one becomes depends upon what one can do. In a bygone era, the automobile allowed millions of Americans the freedom and mobility (the connectivity) to seek out new opportunities. For millions of Americans today such freedom and connectivity is not an actual asphalt highway (or a paved-over dirt road), but virtual highways that will allow even greater freedom, opportunity, and upward mobility.

For poorer and rural Americans, internet access will vastly expand economic and educational opportunities. In effect, closing America’s digital divide will help bring about a more complete democratization of economic mobility with more Americans thriving in the market place.

We know that white space technology works. It’s been tested in the UK and here in the United States. And we know that turning unused TV spectrum into high-speed internet access will improve the lives of millions of Americans. Even those opposed to Microsoft’s plan believe that “increasing rural broadband is a good idea.” 

The proposal to use white space technology to help millions of Americans gain internet access even enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. Meanwhile, FCC chairman Ajit Pai has said if the facts warrant and the law allows it, the FCC “will be aggressive about freeing up TV band white spaces for rural broadband.”

With white space technology, a good idea, free from over-regulation that helps millions of people with bipartisan support instigated by the private sector, has a chance to be fulfilled in Washington — truly a Black Swan event. Let’s hope the Black Swan isn’t sunk by the D.C. swamp, or in this case by the NAB.

Jerry Rogers is the founder of Capitol Allies, an independent, nonpartisan effort that promotes free enterprise. He’s the co-host of The LangerCast on the RELM Network. Twitter: @CapitolAllies.

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