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June 27, 2011 11:43 AM

Will More Spectrum Really Help Drive Rural Broadband?

This morning for the umpteenth time I read about the FCC claiming that making more wireless spectrum available will help solve our rural broadband problems. While I generally roll my eyes at the FCC's obsession with spectrum to the detriment of paying attention to fiber, for some reason today I found myself asking the simple question: will more wireless spectrum really help drive more rural broadband?

The FCC talks about spectrum's impact on rural broadband as if they're tied at the hip, but is that really the case? While not an expert on wireless, let me try to unpack this a bit.

For starters, my understanding is that the need for more spectrum comes from when existing spectrum is jammed with too much additional traffic. If that's the case, then doesn't that mean spectrum scarcity should be more of an urban problem than a rural one? Given the lack of population density, it seems hard to believe that rural America's really suffering from a lack of available spectrum.

The next important point to consider is that spectrum is definitely not the only contributing factor to the rate at which robust, reliable wireless broadband can be deployed. The other two components are the density of towers and the capacity of the backhaul connections to those towers.

While the FCC may talk about spectrum as the chokepoint for wireless broadband, I'd argue the bigger choke points are when too many people are having to share the same tower.

You'd think having too many people sharing the same tower would be a much bigger deal in urban areas, but that isn't necessarily the case as there's such a lower density of towers in rural areas that each tower has to cover users within a much larger radius.

Also, having access to high capacity, affordable backhaul so these towers can actually deliver the traffic that spectrum makes possible can be a really big challenge in rural areas. Plus it's a challenge that requires a lot more effort to resolve than freeing up more spectrum as it means having to invest in laying fiber.

I'm not willing to be so bold as to suggest that a shortage of spectrum is not having some impact on depressing investment in rural broadband, but it seems that spectrum is likely the least of the many barriers to deployment.

As such, I'd ask that our federal government stop trying to force a spectrum crisis down our throats and claiming that it's the most important thing to resolve when what we really need is a more holistic approach to addressing our country's broadband shortcomings.

Spectrum may be important, but it's not the only thing that matters and arguably is one of the things that matters the least, especially to encouraging rural broadband deployment.

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