Author: Betsy Fuller

Fast, reliable broadband is the only thing preventing rural communities from being the next tech hub. Pockets of the country either do not have reliable connectivity or don’t have any at all. Without innovative ways to connect, some towns will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide. One such place is the village of Cimarron, New Mexico. It’s a small town with fewer than 1,000 residents, but attractions like Cimarron Canyon State Park and the historic St. James Hotel bring thousands of tourists through the area each year.

This mostly hidden gem is not only where my husband and I want to move and live, but also where I wish to continue to grow my business. Unfortunately, as is the case for many small towns and rural communities, broadband is almost nonexistent in Cimarron, making it next to impossible for me, or any other tech entrepreneur, to build a business there. Fortunately, there is a solution: television white spaces (TVWS).

Broadband is an essential element for me to provide my services!

I am the founder of For All Abilities, a one-woman consulting firm created to help tech companies produce life-changing products for students, people with disabilities, and people with chronic health conditions. I also work as a technical consultant for films that feature characters who are differently-abled to ensure their representation is accurate and authentic.  The nature of my work gives me the freedom to travel and work remotely, but I am only able to do so if I have a reliable broadband connection.

This summer I spent a couple of weeks in the Cimarron area. During my first trip, I expected to be able to access the internet through Wi-Fi or a cellular hotspot to perform basic tasks, like send and receive emails or access a basic search engine. On this trip, I was working with a few companies, including BrainCo and Paradromics. BrainCo is a Massachusetts-based company born out of the Harvard Innovation Lab that develops brain-machine interface technology products. Their product use ranges from education to Olympic athletes. Paradromics, based in Austin, Texas, is on the cutting edge of using brain computer interfaces for advanced prosthetics, turning data into medicine. During this time, I was also consulting on the film “Salting the Fly.” To say that I needed access to a reliable broadband connection is an understatement! Unfortunately, I struggled to access even my email during my time in this otherwise wonderful area.

On our second trip to New Mexico this summer, I remembered my previous struggles and set aside time prior to leaving to download all the information I needed and was prepared for my only method of communication to be phone calls. While I was able to better anticipate potential snafus, the point is that even short trips to this area severely affect my business, which means living there, at least at this time, is a nonstarter.

Why is Cimarron so hard to get on the grid?

Cimarron has tough terrain surrounded by mountains, cliffs, and canyons. It would be a difficult business case for internet service providers to want to buildout regions like this when you consider the costs associated with deploying traditional fiber-optic or wireless schemas. Wireless towers are also not an option. Imagine sprawling canyons and valleys as far as the eye can see and then – BAM! – a 200-foot wireless tower resting atop one of the many stunning peaks. This kind of infrastructure just doesn’t seem to add to the southwest aesthetic, and tearing up pavement to deploy wire-based connectivity is undesirable due to the high influx of tourists throughout the year. Many Cimarronians are left behind in the great digital divide, but it doesn’t have to be this way – companies have developed technologies to use unlicensed spectrum, TVWS, to provide broadband.

TVWS-enabled broadband is readily available, can be deployed in otherwise unreachable areas, can cover almost 10 miles with minimal infrastructure, and its benefits are widely documented and recognized. It can also provide enough throughput to have digital meetings and transmit huge amounts of data, including sending and receiving email to my clients, with very little wireless infrastructure. While the Federal Communications Commission made some progress on the use of TVWS, there is more to do.

TVWS can open up opportunities for otherwise undeployable areas

 Like many tech entrepreneurs, I don’t want to have to resort to living in a major city or Silicon Valley to make a difference. I love natural landscapes and small towns. Also, I love helping people and have spent my life’s work helping those who are often an afterthought in software development and life. It is why I started my business in the first place.

When people in the community cannot work remotely, it discourages entrepreneurs from moving their innovative businesses and services into the area. Our ever-growing interconnective world requires internet access for everything from a successful education system to healthcare, but is essential to start or maintain a business, especially in the tech sector. This is where TVWS can make up the difference. Currently, the FCC has a petition for a rulemaking pending that would clarify rules to open up this invaluable resource for unlicensed broadband use. This proceeding will get us one step closer to having towns, such as Cimarron, participate in the app economy. Once the FCC resolves some of these issues, the sooner more small, rural areas can be part of this growing digital space.