Why now with white spaces?

-July 27, 2017

Microsoft has finally, squarely kicked the hornet’s nest it’s been poking at for years with its Rural Broadband Initiative, a proposal for bringing broadband to underserved and unserved areas using white band spectrum.

The estimate of Americans lacking a broadband connection is 34 million, or just about 10 percent of the population. Of those, 24 million are in rural areas considered too remote for it to be economically practical to get wireline broadband to them.

Microsoft is petitioning the FCC to set aside at least three channels below 700 MHz in each US market, and is advocating that Federal and state governments set aside matching funds for white space broadband investments.

Both broadcasters and rival communications service providers would have found the request irritating, but were particularly outraged by the specifics and the timing. “Below 700 MHz” means in the unlicensed 600 MHz band, where the FCC just auctioned off spectrum.

That was insult to injury, as far as broadcasters were concerned. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), said "It's the height of arrogance for Microsoft – a $540 billion company – to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction. Microsoft's white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure.”

Not everyone agrees that white space technology is an unmitigated failure, let alone a mitigated one. Microsoft asserts it has proven the technology in the field.

Wired, meanwhile, called Microsoft's proposal a “hustle” – albeit a brilliant and not necessarily malign one. The magazine charges that Microsoft wants broadband network connectivity it doesn’t have to pay for  in areas that will support agricultural Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

It’s a reasonable surmise. Microsoft most certainly is keen on commercializing IoT applications. It is already deeply involved in using white space networks to support agricultural IoT, and, yes, it would probably save money if it didn’t have to pay AT&T or Verizon for IoT network connectivity.

But however self-serving Microsoft’s proposal might be, it should still be attractive to people who live in rural areas where they’ve been waiting in vain for years for broadband service. It should also catch the attention of those concerned with closing the so-called rural gap.

The people in that latter category include FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. He has been generally supportive of development of white space technology for years. In recent days, several publications have reported that he remains open to the idea, though he has not yet commented directly on the spectrum set-asides Microsoft is agitating for.

Microsoft began toying with the notion of using white spaces about in 2003. Since 2009, it has been conducting technology trials, including tests of agricultural IoT networks. It has also deployed 20 systems around the world that today serve a total of about 185,000 customers.

In the early 2010s, Microsoft could have had the US rural broadband market to itself. The cable industry could never string wires economically to remote areas, and never will be able to. AT&T and Verizon have both been promising for years and years to provide rural broadband, but back then the two were both still stalling for time, waiting for wireless technology to be improved to broadband speeds.

Now the two carriers (along with some of their competitors) are beginning to deploy infrastructure for “pre-5G” fixed wireless broadband (meaning newer, faster versions of 4G LTE, at least at first) in rural areas, putting the carriers on the cusp of finally fulfilling their promises.

Microsoft may have many motives for revivifying its white spaces ambitions, but its public argument is that in most cases, a network based on white spaces technology is the least expensive option for the largest number of people living in rural areas still unserved by broadband.

Broadband Acess by County, Source: FCC

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