Unused TV channels currently acting as buffers between active channels could be used to expand rural broadband in Wisconsin and elsewhere, according to a group called Connect Americans Now.

“In Wisconsin, this is a state that’s on the cutting edge when it comes to adopting, integrating, getting educated about, and passing rules and regulations that make those technologies possible,” said Zach Cikanek, policy spokesman for the recently formed group funded by Microsoft. “Television White Space is one of those technologies that right now is one of the most exciting on the horizon, especially when it comes to bridging the rural divide.”

The federal government is helping fund the expansion of rural broadband through the Connect America Fund 2, run by the FCC. Wisconsin is second only to California in terms of funds allotted.

Cikanek spoke at a recent luncheon event in Madison held by the Wisconsin Technology Council. He said 19 million Americans don’t have access to affordable and reliable broadband service, and the largest share of those live in rural communities.

Due to natural barriers like rivers, streams and other obstacles, it can be “prohibitively expensive” to install fiber optic cables or put up needed towers, Cikanek said. Furthermore, residents in those areas are often so widely spaced that it can be hard for providers to justify the cost of reaching them.

With TV White Space, a signal can be sent over 9 miles while retaining full broadband quality speeds — 25 megabytes per second.

“It’s a complement, not a competition with existing technologies,” he said. “We believe that the solution will have to include a full range of technologies… It’s going to have to include fiber optic cable, additional wireless technology, satellite technology — especially for those places where there’s as few as two households per square mile.

“But for a huge percentage of the population, if you’re trying to get broadband connectivity over the next five years, television White Spaces, as it turns out, may be among the single most cost-effective solutions we can deploy today,” he continued.

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