Internet on the TV

Last Updated on Aug 30, 2017 at 10:36am | Garrett County Economic Development

Excerpt from the article, "Rural America is Building Its Own Internet Because No One Else Will," published on Motherboard.  Read the full article here.
Houses with broadband internet in Garrett County in April 2016 (left) vs. April 2017 (right). Image: Garrett County Government
Cheryl DeBerry likes to joke about her home county's location in Maryland.
"We have Pennsylvania to the north, West Virginia to the east, west, and south," DeBerry told me. "I'm not really sure where we're connected to Maryland."
Garrett County is located at the most western reach of Maryland's panhandle. It sits just below the Mason-Dixon line, smack dab in the Appalachian Mountains. It's rural, mountainous, and forested—pretty much the opposite of Cape Cod.
This geography was part of the reason why fewer than 60 percent of residents in Garrett County had broadband internet as of 2011, when county commissioners asked the economic development office, where DeBerry works, to identify its No. 1 priority for improving the region's economy. DeBerry and her colleague quickly zeroed in on rural access to high-speed internet.
With a goal of 90 percent broadband coverage across the county, low population density, and plenty of hills and trees in the way, it wasn't a simple proposal. To start, the county applied for a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission—a federal-state partnership that supports economic development in Appalachia. With that money and some county funds, the local government hired a consultant to come up with a plan to reach its new goal: partner with a private company, and use any resources on hand to weave a network together.
One of those resources was unused TV channels. Known as white space, a lot of the frequencies that previously broadcast analog channels are no longer used, since stations have switched to digital, which requires less spectrum space. All these unused "channels" can act like Wi-Fi extenders, bringing internet to further reaches. Basically, if you could get the local TV news back in analog days, you can get the internet to your door now.
In Garrett County, this was a huge asset, according to Nathaniel Watkins, the chief information officer for the county government. Due to the county's geography, there were multiple unused channels available that weren't being broadcast on and that weren't getting any bleed over from other cities.
"We're kind of protected on all sides by mountains," Watkins said. "In rural areas, we're super fortunate because there aren't a lot of TV broadcasters that are bleeding over into those channels."
White space is particularly useful because it's transmitted on low-frequency waves, meaning it doesn't need a direct line-of-sight from the transmission point to the receiver. It can reach through trees, hills, and buildings, making it ideal for rural areas. The FCC recently approved the use of channel bonding, where multiple consecutive channels are lumped together to create a larger bandwidth, something Garrett County quickly took advantage of.
But while whitespace enabled a lot of the internet expansion in this corner of Maryland, it was only one tool the county has been using. When there is direct line-of-sight—if a community has a tall hill in the center where a tower can be built, for example—using a 5G wireless system can provide better results. To get these hubs in as many places as possible, the county government started looking for anything tall enough to stick an antenna on.
"People have allowed us to put antennae on barns, silos, the sides of houses," DeBerry told me. "There are antennae on trees. We've got folks willing to put in poles [on their property] for us. They're just desperate for service and willing to help their neighbors get it as well."
Often, a combination of techniques is used: fiber connection from the county seat can feed to a tower, which transmits several miles via whitespace to a smaller tower on someone's barn, which shoots 5G signal down to all the neighbors. For $75 a month (comparable or less than a satellite internet subscription), residents can get 5mbps download and upload speeds with no data caps and much more reliable services.
DeBerry said while the county government has a private partner working on these projects, it's not trying to compete with the local ISPs that have been serving the area. They've worked with these businesses to extend their service as well, tasking county summer workers with digging trenches so the companies can expand another mile to reach an unserved area.
"We just recently completed a project for that, and a cable company is now able to provide service for 25 new homes and businesses because we helped them get the infrastructure there," DeBerry said.
In the last year, more than 150 new homes and businesses gained access to high-speed internet through the program. There are still plenty of people without access, and with the exception of those who don't want internet (like the local Mennonite and Amish communities), DeBerry said she believes they can one day get everyone hooked up.
"I'm hopeful we can reach most of those people even out in the middle of nowhere," she said. "We're trying to get everybody."