Proposed TV White Space (TVWS) Rules Would Improve Rural Broadband

Author: Mike Inverso, Director of Sales, KP Performance Antennas

There is still a long road ahead in the fight to close the rural broadband gap in America. According to Pew Research, 24 percent of Americans claim they lack access to high-speed internet service. This is a major problem, as the internet is now a critical utility — arguably as important as water and electricity. Those who lack high speed internet access are at a major disadvantage. And on a larger scale, rural economies are especially at risk of falling further behind in the coming years.

As the communications industry attempts to close the rural broadband gap, many organizations are looking to an enabling technology called TV White Space (TVWS) as a possible solution. TVWS was a major buzzword at WISPAPALOOZA in Las Vegas, and will continue to be a hot button issue in 2019.

What is TVWS?

To help reduce interference, television networks insert gaps — or unused white space — in between active channels in the UHF and VHF spectrum. Research shows that this TVWS is capable of simultaneously delivering broadband internet without interfering with the broadcast channels.

TVWS offers two major benefits for WISPS:

Improved NLOS coverage: TVWS technology enables wireless operators to use low-frequency signals which propagate through geographical barriers like buildings, trees and hills. This results in improved non-line-of-sight (NLOS) coverage, at a price that is more affordable than installing multiple microwave links to go around such barriers.

Deeper coverage: Microwave frequencies are subject to higher free space losses, so maximum distances are hampered without higher gain antennas (larger).  UHF and VHF signals are affected less by free space loss, and so coverage areas can be increased without the need for high gain antennas. With TVWS technology, WISPs can extend coverage deeper into rural areas, providing service for subscribers who live in areas that are difficult to reach.

The FCC’s stance on TVWS

Back in 2010, the FCC released a final set of rules governing unlicensed radio transmitter access for TVWS.

The FCC’s initial guidelines established:

  • The ability for fixed and personal/portable devices to operate in TVWS on an unlicensed basis.
  • The combination of geo-location tagging and database access, to identify vacant channels at specific locations and prevent interference to local TV networks. Databases are set up and administered by third parties selected by the FCC.
  • The ability to register and protect places where licensed wireless microphones are used, as well as event venues where large numbers of unlicensed microphones are authorized. The FCC also decided to keep two channels free of unlicensed devices at any given location so that wireless microphones could operate without having to register.
  • The rules also allow registration for the receive sites of multiple video distribution systems (MVPDs) and low power TV stations and of temporary broadcast auxiliary fixed links, to protect them from interference from TVWS devices.

A full list of the FCC’s white space orders and NPRMs can be accessed here.

As the FCC also explains, the organization is actively looking into ways to open the TVWS spectrum for greater innovation.

“This block of spectrum is ripe for innovation and experimental use, holding rich potential for expanding broadband capacity and improving access for many users, and for developing technologies that can expand this type of spectrum access to other frequencies and services in order to greatly increase our ability to utilize spectrum,” the FCC states on its website. “The FCC is moving forward with plans and is actively working to unlock this spectrum in order to maximize white spaces’ value for consumers and businesses.”

“The Commission continues to look at other innovative approaches to enable additional white space opportunities in other frequency bands,” the FCC goes onto explain.

Pressure mounts to open more TVWS

A lot has changed since 2010, and today the demand for high speed internet is skyrocketing. Certain areas of the country are moving forward with 5G deployments and IoT connectivity, for instance, while other areas are still rife with connectivity dead zones.

As such, the FCC is facing rising pressure to open more of the TVWS spectrum for broadband access. In 2017, the FCC received heavy petitioning from both Microsoft and a bi-partisan coalition of 43 representatives from Congress to set aside three channels in the 600 MHz band for rural broadband use.

More recently, in early November 2018 a group of 44 communications organizations — which comprise the Connect Americans Now coalition — wrote a letter asking the FCC to open additional TVWS for broadband use.

The coalition is asking the FCC to propose the following rule changes:

  1. Higher power for fixed devices in rural locations where CAN members will be allowed to operate without causing harmful interference to broadcasters;
  2. Antenna placement at heights above average terrain, governed by a new protection mechanism;
  3. Narrowband IoT operations to support applications like precision agriculture and environmental sensing; and
  4. Geofenced operation on moving vehicles.

Pushback from the NAB

There remains growing concern among television broadcasters that TVWS will negatively impact their ability to deliver high quality signals to customers.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), for instance, claims that broadcasters will still be vulnerable to interference despite the efforts of the FCC to protect them.

“Using even the most wildly optimistic TVWS database numbers, TVWS advocates just need to connect 33,999,132 more devices to bring broadband Internet to 34 million Americans without access,” NAB executive vice president of communications Dennis Wharton stated last year. “Despite sitting on the sidelines for years during the TVWS experiment, Microsoft now demands that the FCC oust television broadcasters and their viewers to pave the way for free spectrum for TVWS advocates. 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.”

Once again, the FCC is caught in a tug of war as the group looks for a fair way to expand TVWS access without hurting local broadcasters. At this point, it is unclear as to how the FCC will proceed with CAN’s request.

Image credit: Carlson Wireless Technologies