As part of my summer internship with the Progressive States Network, I wrote this paper exploring the how changes in spectrum allocation policy could affect the future of community-based broadband. There are cites and references posted after the article, but I’d strongly recommend checking out Fabiola Carrion‘s writing on the subject on the PSN site and Christopher Mitchell’s MuniNetworks.org.
Please let me know if you find this helpful or interesting!
This Band is Our Band: Spectrum Allocation and Community-Based Broadband
Spectrum is the means through which all broadcasting takes place, so communities have much to gain by taking advantage of new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spectrum allocation policies. As the FCC increases the amount of spectrum available and improves its efficiency, more information can be broadcasted faster and in longer range. Potentially, this gives States and communities the opportunity to provide better broadband access to unserved and underserved rural areas. In partnership with the FCC, local policies can facilitate rollout of nationwide technologies and capitalize on opportunities that they create
Broadband access and adoption open opportunities in nearly every aspect of modern life, as noted by Congress in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, including “consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private-sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes.” As the economy shifts increasingly online, Internet use will be essential to the creation of a strong consumer base, a robust job market, and a business friendly environment. For example, the newest mobile broadband development, 4G wireless technology, could alone create 200,000 jobs. Pairing this new access and new infrastructure construction with the creation of new online businesses and the expansion of existing online companies, information technology positions, hardware maintenance, and the myriad other jobs associated with rapidly growing technological marketplace, it is clear how broadband access is job creator and an economic stimulator.
Despite much progress, America is still faced with a significant gap in broadband access. Of the 26 million Americans without access to broadband, three-quarters are located in the rural areas of the country. These are primarily “areas where there is no business case to offer broadband, and where existing public efforts to extend broadband are unlikely to reach.” This is because of the high cost of building infrastructure and low population density – hence low customer base and income potential – in these areas. The drop off in access at the low end of the income spectrum is startling – only 40% of households earning less than $20,000 a year have high-speed Internet access as compared to 70% of households earning more than $50,000.
As a result, the FCC, State, and local governments have taken a variety of approaches to filling in the gaps where private industry has failed to provide service or demand has been too low to make service profitable, including strengthening funding for anchor institutions like libraries and schools, creating digital literacy programs, reforming Universal Service Funds to include broadband, and the FCC’s proposed creation of the Connect America Fund. Nevertheless, the nearly one-third of Americans who do not subscribe to any form of Internet access still consider the Internet unaffordable and irrelevant to their lives, and cite lack of digital literacy as a substantial problem.
Some communities have engaged in “community-based broadband” projects, wherein communities, in various forms including municipalities, designated non-profits, or co-ops, partner with Internet Service Providers to ensure thorough access to their populations and create solutions tailored to the needs of their area. While many support these projects as efficient responses to the monopolistic nature of Internet service providing and see them as reasonable measures to create fair access and ISP competition, critics see it as unnecessary government interference in the free market and an unnecessary use of public funds. As a result, the 2010-2011 State legislative sessions saw a flurry of community-broadband related bills, some explicitly authorizing municipalities to take such steps and some creating significant obstacles.
As municipalities and States have debated local solutions to the broadband access gap, the FCC has continued to take steps to address this problem on a national scale. In addition to USF reforms, expanded E-rate funding, and other improvements, President Obama has called for an additional 500 MHz of additional spectrum to be dedicated to satiating America’s ballooning demand for mobile and fixed broadband use. The FCC subsequently approved nine private companies to begin exploring the so-called “white space spectrum”, a technology that holds the potential to create faster, stronger, more reliable wireless broadband that can stretch over long distances and penetrate rural areas with dramatically increased efficiency.
With this new white space spectrum on the horizon, the questions that this paper sets out to answer are how community-based broadband projects may be affected by this changing technology and by the FCC’s spectrum allocation policies.
II. Defining Terms
A. What is Community-Based Broadband?
The fundamental idea behind community-based broadband projects is that broadband is a utility that should be available to every member of every community, much like roads, electricity, and phone service, so the government ought to be involved in ensuring access. There are substantial benefits to a community if Internet access is universal. Many governmental functions can be accomplished more cheaply and efficiently; smart grids, e-health plans, and other technology-based infrastructure improvements can be more easily implemented; the local economy can benefit from a more educated and engaged population that better attracts jobs. In a testament to the value of Internet access in modern life, a 2011 United Nations report asserted that Internet access is a critical human right for the 21st century. In the interest of ensuring that every household is served, not just those that are profitable and convenient for service providers to build infrastructure for, municipalities can take matters into their own hands and create a solution tailored to their community’s needs.
Community broadband models range widely in type but fit roughly into three broad categories. The first is an exclusively corporate-owned franchise model, such as the failed Wireless Philadelphia initiative, which depended on a private company to pay the enormous installation costs of the network in exchange for the municipality’s exclusive business. Due to the high cost of wired infrastructure and the substantial portion of the risk riding on the private ISP, these projects are much more likely to be oriented at wireless broadband, especially in the last mile delivery. The second category is a public-private partnership wherein a municipality uses municipal bonds or tax revenue to help pay for construction of a network for a private partner who gets exclusive rights to the city’s business, access to the city’s network, and the opportunity to build it out as necessary. While this is the case in the Wireless Minneapolis project, the role that municipalities play varies greatly in different public-private models, ranging from anchor tenants, subscribers, investors, or guarantors. Where the municipality has control over funding and ownership of the infrastructure, it has control over the design and implementation, so this is the most likely model to produce a wired infrastructure. Finally, in fully community-owned models, the community builds and owns the network, like Chatanooga, TN’s fiber-to-the-home network, or it turns ownership and administration to a non-profit that offers inexpensive service, like Lawrence Freenet in Lawrence, Kansas.
Any one of the solutions outlined above requires quite a bit of discussion, debate, and public comment within a community before it can be implemented. While some state legislatures have tried to encourage so-called “community-based broadband projects”, for example in Washington, others states like North Carolina have reacted strongly against the idea and created significant barriers to municipal entry into the service market. Opponents argue that the high upfront cost of entry takes too long to be earned back for the community and that a municipality has an unfair advantage over private ISPs who would otherwise serve that market, while proponents counter that the investment pays for itself in the long run.
Building a broadband infrastructure often costs upwards of several million dollars in upfront investment. Although there are tremendous long-term payoffs to having a digitally savvy and educated community, especially fostering an attractive job market, such benefits are not always apparent or convincing enough to justify the size of the investment and the risk that technological development may leave the infrastructure prematurely obsolete. This fear is particularly relevant for fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) networks. Although FTTP is currently the fastest and most reliable means of delivering Internet service and is expected to remain so for a substantial period of time, some argue that it could be replaced by rapidly developing wireless technologies in the near future. While community-based broadband projects can be either wireline or wireless, the current limitations of wireless range and penetration in rural areas mean that a wireline connection, at least up to the last mile, would be necessary to ensure adequate service in the short run. Wireline requires more infrastructure and so is more costly and time consuming to install and carries a greater risk of obsolescence.
This paper does not seek to address or solve the debate over the prudence of government involvement in broadband, but rather hopes to inform decisions of lawmakers trying to increase their jurisdiction’s access. Community-based broadband plans vary widely in type and are a clear, direct route for communities to take charge of their Internet penetration. However, a choice in how and whether to invest must be informed by the future of the industry and the technology as well as other options to increase access. This will all largely be shaped on the federal level by the FCC.
B. What is Spectrum Allocation?
All broadcast frequencies fall on the radio frequency spectrum, ranging from 3 Hz to 300 GHz, and every broadcast must be sent at a specific frequency so that a receiver is able receive the broadcast at that frequency. For example, a local radio station broadcasts at a specific, constant frequency so that every listener in range can turn his or her dial to that frequency to receive the audio being broadcast.
The radio frequency (RF) spectrum is considered to be the property of the American people. The government, via the FCC, divided the RF spectrum into bands designated for specific purposes, with separate bands of spectrum designated for uses for the government, public safety, national defense, television, radio, cellular, and unlicensed consumers. Most of the spectrum is licensed to broadcasters who are allowed to use the broadcast airwaves to make a profit, but only on the condition that they also serve the public trust by providing news services, as per the Communications Act of 1934. Theoretically, the FCC has the authority to revoke any broadcaster’s license, should they cease to use it for public good, though it has not denied a license for those reasons in over 30 years. The spectrum ultimately always belongs to the American people and is merely on loan to the broadcasters. The FCC has the ultimate authority to license spectrum out and police those who are entrusted with its use.
The “unlicensed spectrum” band is available for anyone with a broadcast device to use for any purpose, with no FCC approval required. This is the type of spectrum used by wireless microphones, wireless modems, Bluetooth, and other short distance devices that require no broadcast license to use. Unlicensed spectrum includes the 900 MHz ISM band, which is particularly good for travelling long distances and penetrating walls and other obstacles and is thus ideal for wireless Internet service as well as use in smart grids. This is the spectrum band which is in the shortest supply as broadband usage explodes.
Because there is a limited amount of radio frequency available on the RF spectrum, it is a scarce resource. Much concern has been voiced over the apparent shortage as demand has continued to balloon, primarily fueled by the widespread adoption of wireless Internet and smart phones. For example, the amount of data consumed per telephone line in America increased 450% from the start of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010 alone, and is expected to grow between 25 to 50 times the current level by 2015. A spectrum shortage could lead to inadequate service, slow connection speeds, and other technical problems that would greatly limit the utility of mobile devices and create substantial problems for anyone whose mobile device is their primary Internet access point. However, two technological innovations promise to help create new usable spectrum that can satiate demand and help spur technological innovation in America.
First, the switch from analogue television broadcasting to digital television broadcasting has created much greater efficiency and requires significantly narrower bandwidth for television broadcasters. In the past, a “buffer space” of silence was left around broadcast frequencies so that interference with other broadcasts could be avoided. Due to the switch to digital television (DTV), broadcasting is much more efficient and narrow over long ranges and this buffer space is no longer necessary. As a result, the amount of spectrum allocated to these broadcasters is no longer necessary and a substantial portion of the spectrum that is currently unused can be repurposed for mobile broadband purposes. These unused frequencies are called “white spaces” because they are currently blank. Television white spaces are particularly valuable because this spectrum range is ideal for penetrating obstacles like walls and trees and traveling distances two to three times longer than the spectrum currently used for Wi-Fi.
Second, the invention of “white space” technologies makes far more efficient use of the spectrum that is already available by broadcasting much more information along the existing spectrum bands. White space works by making use of both licensed and unlicensed frequencies that are available for use but not being used at any given moment in any given area. Some licensed frequency is used only in certain areas of the nation, for example, so is available in others, and many government and emergency channels are used infrequently. By analogy, it is able to efficiently use limited highway lanes by switching cars from busy lanes to empty ones and keep traffic moving at optimal speeds. White space broadcasting, also known as cognitive broadcasting, knows when a channel is open and puts the frequency to use. White space is so efficient that is has earned the nicknames “super Wi-Fi” and “Wi-Fi on steroids”, and has already been implemented around the nation for smart grids, telemedicine, and broadband access in unserved areas. Unfortunately, white space technology is not yet ready for deployment and so its potential is still largely theoretical.
In June of 2011, the FCC approved a scheme to incentivize broadcasters who had switched to DTV to voluntarily relinquish their licensed spectrum back to the FCC for more efficient repurposing. Implementation of this plan relies on a Congressional grant of authority, and a bill to provide such authority and to create a national interoperable wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety is in debate at the time of this writing. This bill has a direct bearing on the future of white space technology for several reasons. First, it would allocate 10 MHz of television spectrum reclaimed from broadcasters’ switch to digital to public safety (the “D-block”, as it is known) and authorize public safety officials to lease out capacity on the network when it is not in use. This would create significant amounts of newly available white space that could be used to provide broadband access to currently unserved and underserved markets.
III. What This Means for Community-Based Broadband and the Access Gap
While the potential that white space technologies hold is undoubtedly exciting, the access gap that still exists will continue to worsen until a solution is implemented. The fact remains that rural areas are not profitable for private industry to connect with fiber wire or other physical infrastructure, and are unlikely to become so. The hope that wireless technologies will fill in this gap and alleviate the need for such infrastructure is appealing but risky. As a result, State and local governments are faced with difficult decisions in evaluating the viability of community broadband projects.
Fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband, which requires a fiber optic cable to be physically installed going to each home, is the most expensive technology to build but is also “the only last-mile technology capable of meeting ultra-high-speed needs of the coming years.” Although technological predictions are impossible to guarantee, FTTP is expected to be an optimal technology for another 20 to 30 years. Assuming this prediction holds true, FTTP is a good bet for communities planning municipal broadband systems. While significantly more expensive to install, fiber is cheaper to maintain and upgrade in the long run than either copper wire, which is already becoming obsolete and inadequate, or wireless systems, whose transmitters will likely need replacing every 3 to 7 years as technology evolves. Fiber also has the added benefit of being a thoroughly reliable delivery method whose quality will not be affected by environmental issues like trees, topography, weather, and distance from the cell site. Further, heavy activity by some users on the network is much less likely to affect the service of other users on a FTTP system than a wireless one.
There is an option to use a microwave point-to-point backhaul for reliable long-distance wireless Internet service, or to use a hybrid fiber microwave (HFM) system mixing the two technologies. A purely microwave point-to-point system has much potential for quality degradation and interference. The HFM system, which uses a fiber-cable backbone with microwave point-to-point cell sites for last mile delivery, has the advantage of lower cost for link distances greater than 1 to 2 miles relative to a pure fiber network without losing much in the way of capacity and reliability. For areas with very low population density or rough terrain, where constructing an all-fiber network is especially difficult and costly, this could be an ideal solution.
Ultimately, the question is one of weighing the cost savings of wireless technology against the long-term strategic benefits of fiber networks. For dense, urban areas, an all-fiber system is almost certainly worth the investment, as cost is relatively low. For remote areas with very low density and terrain that would be expensive to build on, the HFM system’s cost-savings relative to its benefits may be significant enough to make it worthwhile. There will likely be a quality tradeoff, though, so there is no clear universal strategy that will work generally. Each community will have to examine its own technological, geographic, and fiscal situation to determine what the best solution will be for its population’s needs.
Increased available spectrum will improve the quality of municipal broadband projects, as the current lack of spectrum “increases the cost of the buildout in unserved areas by nearly 5%.” With less spectrum available, more cell sites are necessary to keep signal strength high and avoid interference, and this means more upfront investment and higher maintenance costs. Additionally, wireless speeds will be slower as a result of more activity on the same frequencies. Since unlicensed spectrum is ideal for smart grids, lack of available spectrum hinders this progress as well. The hope is that white space technology will allow this last-mile microwave service to more cheaply and effectively reach more customers in unserved areas. It is thus in every state’s best interest to stay abreast of the FCC’s plans and be ready to provide the FCC with feedback, comments, and data when rule revisions and policy changes call for it.
As Congress moves forward with its plans to create a national interoperable wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety, States should be aware of the progress and take steps to help create technical standards that will be uniform between States. Michigan, for example, has deployed an interoperable communications system based on a shared architecture, while States like Montana and Utah have formed public councils that have provided successful guidance in the planning and implementation of interoperable networks. This will help ensure an interoperable network. Any regions with community-based broadband projects or other centralized broadband networks should be aware of the technology already installed or slated to be utilized and create standards within the state to match the national standards being implemented. With appropriate and informed state leadership, progress and implementation can be much faster, more efficient, and more uniform, and State legislators can help by “craft[ing] statutory rules and laws that codify policy guidelines and ensure that vital funding requirements are met.”
By staying involved and informed in the national spectrum allocation discussions, state legislators can be pioneers in adoption of the newest opportunities for their constituents. The new D-block spectrum available for the public safety network and the tertiary market for white space spectrum created along with it will give leaders the opportunity to raise money for their states, designate extra spectrum for unserved areas, and create industry-friendly, technologically advanced environments. To avoid missing out on these kinds of opportunities, States should retain a professional spectrum manager to help coordinate high level policies and ensure the most effective possible use of a State’s funding and resources to provide broadband access for all and an effective public safety wireless network. This way state leadership can be ready to take action as soon as the opportunity arises.
Fundamentally, the need for community-based broadband networks is not changed by new FCC spectrum allocation policies. With luck, deployment of such programs will be easier, less expensive, and more effective. States and municipalities considering municipal broadband buildouts should stay educated on the advantages created by impending FCC policy changes and plan accordingly. With broadband playing an increasingly crucial role in every aspect of our lives, the costs of the broadband gap are constantly rising. The longer leaders wait to stimulate adoption, the larger the costs will be of building infrastructure and providing digital literacy education.
While community-based broadband may not be the answer for every community, States should consider their individual needs and options. Despite the high upfront cost, community-based broadband plans offer high levels of customizability, control, and revenue potential for communities. In light of the improvements that new FCC spectrum allocation policies promise, community-based broadband promises to be more effective and affordable than ever before.
 47 U.S.C. 1305(k)(2)(D).
 Progressive States Network, Broadband and Technology Investments: Policy Options for 2011 (2011).
 In the Proposed Notice of Rule Making associated with Universal Service Reform, the FCC suggested replacing the USF with a new streamlined version called the Connect America Fund that will accomplish the same goals with less waste, fraud, and abuse. See Fed. Commc’n Comm’n, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Matter of Lifeline and Link Up Reform and Modernization (2011).
 Seventh Broadband Progress Report and Order on Reconsideration at 3.
 Laura Forlano, Alison Powell, Gwen Shaffer, and Benjamin Lennett, New Am. Found., From the Digital Divide to Digital Excellence (2011), at 5.
 Forlano, supra at 8.
 Forlano, supra at 18 (identifying that St. Cloud invested $2.75 million up front, Lawrence invested $2.2 million for their project, the Lompoc network required $4 million upfront, and Wireless Minneapolis required a $2.2 million upfront investment).
 See 47 U.S.C. § 609 (stating that because the broadcasting spectrum belonged to the public, broadcasters must operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity” in exchange for their broadcast licenses).
 SilverSpring Networks, Why Unlicensed Spectrum Dominates the Smart Grid (2010).
 Fed. Commc’n Comm’n, OBI Technical Paper Series, Mobile Broadband: The Benefits of Additional Spectrum (2010).
 Fed. Commc’n Comm’n, OBI Technical Paper No. 1 at 66.
 See SilverSpring Networks, supra.