Internet ruling may keep rural areas connected

There was a pretty important vote earlier this month that will affect New Hampshire and the nation as a whole. Perhaps you heard?

No, probably not; some other election drowned it out.

But the 5-0 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to allow wireless broadband on part of the television spectrum may eventually make a difference in the amount of Internet available in our less-settled areas, in those woody, unpeopled areas up north, or around Peterborough and Keene.

“It offers hope where there might not have been as much before, where business model didn’t support (wireless broadband),” said Prof. Michael Carter of UNH’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who responded to my e-mailed cry for help figuring out what the vote meant.

In other words: potential, not panacea.

Now, you can forgive a bit of eye-rolling at discussion of “potential” for rural broadband.

Scads of ideas with potential have been floated over the years, like fiber-optic lines in Milford’s sewer system, point-to-point microwaves, a public/private aggregator to turn the Monadnock Region into gigabyte heaven and “crowdsourced” public hot spots.

All of these fizzled. If you don’t have cable modem access or are not lucky enough to live near telephone central office lines for DSL, you’re stuck with dial-up or so-so Internet from satellites.

Hence the hope for broadband over TV airwaves.

On Feb. 17, most of the nation’s television broadcasters will stop sending their signals in analog form and will only use digital. (Some small broadcasters, including TV-13 in Nashua, are exempt from this expensive requirement.)

This change will be a pain in the neck for people like me who get their TV over the air, since older sets and antennas won’t snag the new signals, but there is a big upside: Digital signals are more efficient, freeing up part of the broadcast spectrum.

The government reallocated the 700-megahertz spectrum for various public uses such as law enforcement, and also auctioned chunks to private firms. But some was left as “white space.” (A term, may I point out, stolen from print media. Can we charge a trademark fee for it?)

On Election Day, the FCC voted unanimously to let unlicensed broadband use this white space – which, Carter gently informed after I’d gotten myself totally confused, refers not just to specific bandwidths but to a mix of location, time and frequency “slots.”

A particular frequency might be unlicensed in the North Country but licensed in Boston.

The 700-megahertz spectrum is desirable because signals carry further and handle interference from things like trees better than the higher frequencies which have been available for unlicensed use.

For example, the Wireless LINC program that I mentioned a few weeks ago, which is trying to create wireless broadband in empty bits of Grafton County and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is experimenting around 11 gigahertz and 6 gigahertz.

If they could move to 700 megahertz, they could install fewer antennas on expensive 90-foot poles and perhaps make other changes that would speed up installation and lower costs.

Such, anyway, is the promise. “The thing that was blocking small ISPs before was the fact that you had to get a license from the FCC, sold at auction,” said Carter.

“This still doesn’t solve all the technical problems, give them a bit less headache than trying to make something work at those higher frequencies.”

Carter says two companies already sell equipment that has basically taken mobile Wi-Max – a beefed up Wi-Fi – and shifted it down to 700 megahertz.

The big question now is the FCC rules of operation.

The FCC press release said “devices must include a geo-location capability and provisions to access over the Internet a database,” and the ability to avoid bits of the bandwidth being used nearby by devices like wireless microphones.

(Wireless mikes? Yes, indeed: Many entertainers opposed the white space ruling because of concern about their microphones.)

The FCC said it will “closely oversee and monitor the introduction of TV white space devices,” although that might mean so much red tape that they never come to market.

The FCC also said it “will explore … whether higher-powered unlicensed operations might be permitted in TV white spaces in rural areas,” where presumably wireless mikes are less of an issue.

That’s where rural hopes lie: Creating a company that can blast broadband over enough square miles to cover sufficient video downloaders and at-home businesses to pay their bills.

“I think the exciting thing is that, for people that are within perhaps two miles within somewhat visible access point they might be able to get 10-15 megabit download speeds,” said Carter. “That would be a big improvement.” – THE TELEGRAPH