By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – When it comes to strengthening Wisconsin’s internet connections, from its most rural settings to under-served neighborhoods in its largest cities, there is no “one-tech-fits-all” solution.

In fact, the blend of technologies required to better connect people, businesses, schools and emergency responders will range dramatically depending on cost, location and speed of delivery.

That was made apparent in a Feb. 20 meeting on broadband in Madison, and at a recent gathering of tech professionals and advocates in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, that notion of clearing the way for diverse technology solutions is resonating with most members of the Wisconsin Legislature.

“Broadband” is a general term for a mix of technologies that can connect people and machines to the internet. Those delivery systems range from typically slow dial-up connections to cable and Digital Subscriber Lines; from satellite to public Wi-Fi networks; and from optical fiber to prototype “fixed wireless” antennas on existing power lines.

Here are two examples of technologies getting attention in Wisconsin and elsewhere because of the potential for improved connections:

Small-cell technology is already deployed in many cities and major facilities. It is expected to become the backbone for the rollout of fifth-generation, or 5G, advanced wireless systems across the world. Without it, the full potential of trends such as the “Internet of Things,” “Smart Cities” and autonomous vehicles cannot be tapped.

The Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill (AB 348) in June 2017 that would pave the way for a network of low-profile, small-cell antennas that can be attached to utility poles or building exteriors. The bill would clarify administrative and regulatory rules and allow Wisconsin to join neighboring states – Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio – in encouraging deployment.

Although the bill passed a key Senate committee, it has yet to surface on the floor of the upper house, where the calendar is running short on working days. Unless Wisconsin moves quickly, it runs the risk of falling behind other states in attracting investment and jobs in virtual reality, driverless vehicles, telemedicine, entertainment venues and connected homes – precisely the areas where 5G can improve speed and service.

Broadcast “white space” describes buffer zones between assigned broadcast channels in the spectrum used to transmit electromagnetic waves.

Wisconsin is on a short list of a dozen states targeted by a coalition led by Microsoft to greatly expand the use of white space, mainly in the television spectrum, to extend high-speed broadband internet service.

Primarily intended for hard-to-serve rural areas, the white space option is attractive because it can operate at speeds four times faster than Wi-Fi and reach up to 16 times farther. Wireless signals can travel over hills, as well as through foliage and buildings, the same qualities that have long allowed rural communities to get strong television signals.

It’s also less expensive – at least, in most rural areas – because the equipment needs appear to be less elaborate than fiber-optic cable or transmitters that must be more densely situated to work. The Federal Communications Commission approved the “white space” option in 2008 but there hasn’t been much progress, in part because broadcasters have reservations.

The Wisconsin Assembly passed a resolution Thursday to support “white space” technology, which could help prompt state pilot programs like those in other states and encourage the FCC to set aside unlicensed spectrum in each state in the 600 megahertz to 700 megahertz range. The resolution was immediately sent to the Senate, where action is pending.

Speaking Tuesday to the Tech Council Innovation Network in Madison, state broadband director Angie Dickison agreed it will likely take a mix of technologies to fill out Wisconsin’s broadband portfolio – which is improving due to private investment, federal initiatives, state aid and community partnerships.

“Our broadband expansion grant program is agnostic… We’re in a wonderful time that we have all of these different (technology) options in front of us so that Wisconsin communities will potentially have choices,” Dickison said.

The same philosophy was on display in Washington, where federal policymakers were among those who spoke Feb. 14 at an annual gathering of CompTIA, the nation’s largest tech group. Democrats and Republicans alike emphasized the need for flexibility in government rules so that broadband technologies will be free to compete.

In Wisconsin, where thousands of people are still stranded on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” having that measure of choice is welcome.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.