FCC decision could boost Internet in Vt.
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | October 29,2008
MONTPELIER — A decision expected early next week by the Federal Communications Commission could result in a major boost for Vermont's efforts to bring high-speed Internet service to the entire state by the year 2010.
The FCC is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal to open up the so-called television white spaces — unused radio frequencies between TV stations — for use as wireless broadband spectrums.
That change could be a boon for rural states such as Vermont, where these white spaces are abundant due to the lack of in-state television broadcasters. But the proposal still faces an uphill battle as several key lawmakers urge the FCC to delay next week's vote.
On Monday, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, the division set up last year to bring universal Internet and cellular coverage to the state by the end of 2010, sent e-mails to supporters asking them to encourage the FCC to open up the spectrum.
Mary Evslin, the chairwoman of the Telecommunications Authority, said if the FCC opens up the spectrum for unlicensed use, it would mean that anyone could begin using the space — from big companies such as FairPoint Communications to new ISP entrepreneurs.
"Right now it is being held open for the TV broadcasters, but it is not owned by them," Evslin said Monday. "But if it is opened up for the public, it becomes the people's interstate highway of the Internet."
Among the difficulties in wiring up Vermont for universal high-speed Internet and cell phone coverage is the state's geography — lots of mountains and valleys — and the rural pockets where many are still stuck with dial-up Internet service because it is not economical for the large companies to extend service there.
Tom Evslin, a former technology executive who blogs about the Internet (and is married to Mary Evslin, the telecommunications chairwoman), said this spectrum that is not being used has the potential to bring faster Internet access than what is now available.
"If this became available, I think we would see a lot of low-cost services appear," he said.
The "white spaces" television spectrum is also perfectly suited for rural states such as Vermont because its signal travels through "trees and walls," Tom Evslin said, and could reach parts of the state that traditional Internet companies won't go.
"From an economic development standpoint, this could be a shot in the arm for the tech sector," he said. "No other country has done this yet."
But in recent weeks, key Washington, D.C., lawmakers have urged the FCC to delay a vote on opening up the spectrum, expressing a concern mirrored by the National Association of Broadcasters, alleging that such a move could interfere with the broadcasts from TV stations.
A study released by the FCC this year states that these white spaces could be used for wireless Internet access without interfering with television broadcasts if new technology now available is used.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is often referred to as the "cyber senator" for his work on technology and Internet issues, gave a cautious thumbs up to the plan Monday — saying it shows "great promise" to expand access — so long as it does not interfere with the television broadcasts.
"If this spectrum can be used without causing interference, Vermonters will benefit from wider broadband access," said David Carle, Leahy's spokesperson. "There are technical challenges in doing this right, and he believes the FCC needs to take seriously the legitimate concerns that have been raised by broadcasters and others and to be careful in drafting new rules to ensure that devices using white spaces do not cause unintended harmful interference."
U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., had no comment on the proposal, but a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the "use of the white space spectrum could help expand broadband and other technologies to Vermonters in tandem with existing communications systems."
The move does not require congressional approval, but input from lawmakers could weigh heavily on the final decision.
Evslin said at this point there is a "5-0/50 chance" that the FCC could vote to delay a decision — pushing the issue off to the next presidential administration, which presumably would appoint new commissioners to serve.
"That's why now is the time to act," he said.
An online petition in favor of the FCC change can be found at www.freetheairwaves.com and Vermonters can comment directly to the FCC by logging onto http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/upload v2.cgi and typing in the case docket number of 04-186.
Contact Daniel Barlow at firstname.lastname@example.org.