IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Freeing up More Unlicensed Spectrum Would Benefit Consumers, Companies

As a wireless internet service provider (WISP) in a rural, sawmill region of Oregon, IV Data Center is the last frontier when it comes to serving areas other ISPs can’t or won’t serve. We help bridge the digital divide for the most underserved customers in the country.

Our company, also known as Illinois Valley Data Center, serves Josephine County, Ore., which consistently ranks as the second poorest county in the state. The small lumber mill region has seen its industry decimated over the last several decades. As the mills moved out, small business moved in: Today our community has 17 times more home-based and e-commerce businesses than the national average.

Unlike your average large Internet provider, IV Data Center is part of the community. We live here. We care about getting service to the most remote members of the community, not only because we are going to see them in the grocery store, but because they know us. The big carriers look at the economic factors and they don’t see the compelling story for providing service to our residents. They’re merely interested in dollar signs.

Depending on how the looming 2015 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Broadcast Television Incentive Auction ruling is structured, a whole portion of this online community we’ve built could live or die. Through rules passed in 2008, businesses such as ours use the TV white space spectrum to provide wireless broadband without a license — as long as we follow certain guidelines. We have done so while accomplishing some amazing things. However, if the FCC decides to auction this spectrum to large wireless providers, our customers won’t have access to anything better than dial-up speeds, or a nearly as slow DSL connection on decaying phone lines, which are more than 40 years old.

TV white space, which is spectrum allocated for broadcast television but not currently occupied by a broadcaster, allows us to provide broadband speeds to our customers in rural Oregon who have no other economically viable broadband options. TV white spaces offers sub-1-GHz spectrum and is able to go around and through trees, obstacles and mountains, all of which are plentiful in our area. I live 40 miles from the redwoods, so we have 120-foot trees all over the place. The TV white space spectrum is really the only effective way we can get to people on the other side of the mountain or the other side of 120-foot trees.

Until we know the FCC’s plans for auctioning off the broadcast spectrum, we are hesitant to invest more in our business, and manufacturers are hesitant to ramp up production, which will increase affordability. We don’t want to deploy additional services until we have some certainty from the FCC that we will be able to continue to provide our services.

If the FCC doesn’t take WISPs like ours into account, we will run into the possibility of our customers suddenly having dial-up or satellite as their only options. Satellite, which can be incredibly expensive, offers inconsistent connections because of the local terrain. If we’re trying to improve the local economy and get people jobs, the last thing they need is a bill for $150 a month. We’re providing affordable broadband service between $20 and $50.

Even if a large wireless provider like Verizon were to buy a license to provide coverage here, they may not provide access to our customers. From a business standpoint, there is no economic incentive for them to serve more remote customers. Remote crews have to come out here, stay in hotels and put up big structures — all very expensive. It just doesn’t make financial sense for them. On the other hand, we can do it because we live around the corner. It’s less expensive for us.

In order for WISPs such as ours to continue providing broadband in rural communities, the FCC must consider who they are serving: the public or a tiny fraction that can write a check for $2 billion. I think it comes down to that: It’s either everyone or some infinitesimally small interest company, from which we then beg to get reasonable service and pricing. The FCC should help to bridge the digital divide, not widen it.

Through CompTIA and our partnership with TechVoice, I recently met with the FCC to discuss unlicensed use of TV white space spectrum and its value to small tech businesses. TechVoice members and I met with staff members from all five of the FCC commissioner offices to make a final push to leave sufficient spectrum available for unlicensed use in TV white space after the upcoming Broadcast Incentive Auction.

The FCC is likely to make some major decisions on this issue in May, and we hope they keep small businesses in mind when doing so. Until then, we will continue to work with CompTIA and TechVoice to make sure lawmakers understand the value of unlicensed spectrum to small businesses.

Cameron Camp is the CEO of IV Data Center and a cybersecurity researcher for ESET North America.

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