How TV 'white space' may expand telehealth access: 6 things to know

In recent years, experts have suggested using TV "white spaces," or unused broadcasting frequencies on TV networks, to address geographic disparities in broadband access.

Here are six things to know about how the recommendation may improve telehealth.

1. White spaces, the unused spectrum between TV stations, arise when not all available TV channels are used, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In 2010, the FCC opted to allow unlicensed radio transmitters to operate in these white spaces, which opened formerly unused spectrum for services like Wi-Fi. Today, the FCC notes white spaces represent "a valuable opportunity for our changing wireless mobile landscape."

2. The use of white spaces to expand broadband capacity is particularly noteworthy, since 34 million people, or 10 percent of all Americans, lack access to broadband meeting the FCC's speed benchmark, according to the agency's "2016 Broadband Progress Report." This disparity is pronounced among rural Americans, as 39 percent of residents don't have broadband meeting the FCC benchmark.

3. Personal computers don't come equipped to connect to the broadband spectrum, and would need to use a separate device to link to TV white space, according to TechRepublic. However, some corporations are experimenting with this technology. Microsoft, for example, deployed 20 TV white space projects worldwide, serving 185,000 users, according to a July report.

4. In Microsoft's July report, titled "A Rural Broadband Strategy," the company stated the U.S. should pledge to eliminate the rural broadband gap by 2022. It laid out a three-step plan to reach this goal, a major part of which comprised developing a nationwide technology model using TV white spaces, fixed wireless and satellite coverage.

5. TV white spaces have captured attention from various stakeholders, even outside of the tech industry. In a July 31 letter, a bipartisan coalition of 43 House Representatives asked FCC officials to prioritize using TV white space to promote rural broadband access, specifying the agency should "preserve at least three, 6 MHz television white spaces channels in every media market across the United States."

6. These stakeholders also commented on the potential for broadband expansion to influence the healthcare space. The App Association — an advocacy organization representing more than 5,000 app companies and IT firms — wrote a recent blog post detailing how TV white spaces will improve rural patients' access to telehealth.

Similarly, in its report, Microsoft noted broadband is playing a growing role in managing healthcare delivery, as hospitals turn to telehealth to address physician shortages in rural areas. House Representatives, by contrast, emphasized how "doctors in rural health clinics would be able to access life-saving information through broadband connected networks with urban medical centers."

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