Connect Americans Now hosted a community meeting Jan. 25 in Salem, Ore. to discuss bridging the digital divide.

By GEORGE PLAVEN

Capital Press

Published on January 29, 2018 8:18AM

When advocates of providing high-speed broadband to all corners of America talk about the “digital divide,” they are talking about places like Gilliam County, Ore.

From the waterfront along the Columbia River in Arlington to the rolling wheat fields surrounding Condon, the county spans 1,200 square miles and roughly 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Many homesteads and farms are tucked away at the bottom of steep canyons, where wireless internet struggles to penetrate.

That creates a challenge for elderly residents who rely on the convenience of telemedicine, and farmers who would like to fit their tractors with GPS steering, said Gilliam County Judge Steve Shaffer. Shaffer spoke Jan. 25 at a community forum in Salem hosted by Connect Americans Now, a coalition dedicated to eliminating the digital divide by 2022.

Specifically, the group has homed in on using what are known as TV white spaces to deliver rural broadband.

“This is a technology that we think will really work for us,” Shaffer said.

TV white space refers to unused television channels on the broadcast spectrum that act as a buffer to avoid interference between active channels. The broadcast spectrum ranges from low-frequency bands like AM radio, which can travel great distances at low data volume, to high-frequency bands like Wi-Fi, which travel shorter distances at much higher volume.

Joe Conradi, national outreach director for Connect Americans Now, said TV white space is the sweet spot between the two, able to reach long enough distances at enough volume for rural broadband.

What the market needs, Conradi said, is regulatory certainty from the Federal Communications Commission. Connect Americans Now launched Jan. 2 and is urging the FCC to leave at least three TV white space channels open in every market, luring much-needed investment to communities like Gilliam County and its population of 1,900.

Fiber will always be the gold standard for internet, Conradi said, but he estimated it would cost $60 billion-$80 billion to bridge the digital divide using fiber alone. That’s why a combination of technologies, including TV white space, is a key part of the strategy, he said.

“The most important thing is we need to put pressure on the FCC,” Conradi said.

More than 34 million Americans, including 23.4 million in rural areas, are without access to reliable broadband, according to Connect Americans