Twenty-five million: the entire population of Australia, the amount of money “Crazy Rich Asians” made at the box office its second week in theatres, and the number of people in the rural United States without access to the internet. That’s right, 25 million rural Americans are part of an underserved population that cannot access telehealth tools, do homework, or apply for jobs. Technology-driven small businesses are growing beyond the coasts, but small businesses in rural America find themselves struggling to contribute to and benefit from the $950.6 billion app economy due to lack of access. As a growing number of industries begin to leverage new technologies, this segment of the population could continue to fall behind, leaving people who are already disadvantaged in the dust.
With these massive connectivity gaps in mind, ACT | The App Association teamed up with Congressmen Austin Scott (GA-08) and Mark Pocan (WI-02) to host a briefing on existing infrastructure that can connect rural America to the internet. The event, “Back to School: Addressing the Homework Gap and the Digital Divide with Unlicensed Spectrum,” highlighted the remarkable effect the use of television white spaces (TVWS) could have on rural communities across the United States.
Why TV White Spaces?
Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America, kicked things off by explaining that TVWS are unlicensed, unused, or under-used channels in between licensed channels that can carry large volumes of data across great distances and through obstacles, like trees and buildings. This low band resource covers more area, at least six miles, with a reliable internet connection, making it an ideal source for internet in rural areas that pose natural obstacles to more traditional spectrum sources.
Unfortunately, as Calabrese explained, there are several regulatory hoops to jump through to allow TVWS to be widely used outside of pilot projects, like the one at West Virginia University. Right now, nationwide, the unlicensed use of one channel is available. However, the rules outlining the permissible uses of channels 37, the “Duplex Gap,” and an unassigned vacant channel— chunks of spectrum that could support TVWS use—are still under active consideration at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
What’s at Stake for Small Business
Chris Sims, co-founder of Sigao Studios, an App Association member, shared his experience as a rural business owner. Sigao Studios was as a four-person operation working around a dining room table. Within two years, the company tripled in size, had 1000 percent growth, and recently moved into prime real estate in downtown Birmingham. Part of setting up the new office included getting internet, which turned out to be a more difficult task than originally thought. Sims and his team were told by their internet provider that it would be more than one month before their offices would be able to be connected. Unfortunately, this isn’t a rarity in rural areas – it’s the norm.
Sims also pointed out that the lack of access to the internet means a smaller workforce. “In Birmingham alone, there are 1,600 developer jobs available. If potential members of the workforce don’t have access to the internet, they can’t participate in the app economy,” he reported. With an average computing salary of $85,466 in the state of Alabama—nearly double the national average—there is certainly an incentive to join the app economy. Unfortunately, people in the area are not given the resources they need to qualify for these jobs.
Bridging the Digital Divide
It’s essential to remember that the absence of internet connection doesn’t just mean people can’t stream their favorite movie. It means they can’t get the training or education necessary for today’s workforce, which means businesses like Sigao Studios can’t hire locally. This sentiment was echoed in an op-ed written by Sims prior to our briefing, “As a native Alabaman, I love my state and the people who live in it. I want my business to grow here, I want to hire more people here, I want my fellow Alabamans to stay here. But we risk losing opportunities for our people – or worse, losing our people to different states – because we cannot access the internet.” Losing local talent doesn’t just hurt the mission of businesses like Sigao Studios that aim to hire people in the community, it harms the local economy.
Additional panelists, Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and Ross Marchand, director of policy at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, reminded attendees that using unlicensed spectrum and TV white space does not require the removal of full-power broadcast channels or interfere with their use of the airwaves. The pieces of spectrum TVWS would use are not on the same part of the dial as those that licensed TV stations occupy. TVWS are a sustainable solution that provides an invaluable resource capable of revitalizing and connecting communities.
The App Association continues to advocate for the FCC, with oversight from Congress, to remove barriers so that TVWS can be used to connect rural America to the rest of the world. We recognize the pilot projects, grants, and other important work that is being done to begin to clear this path, and we look forward to its completion and the future of a connected America.