Analysis: How Will Microsoft’s Investment Affect Rural Communities?
Microsoft’s $10 billion plan for rural broadband will support a specific technology that holds promise for serving rural America. But communities still need to focus on network ownership, which can determine how broadband gets used in economic development, education, and healthcare.
By Craig Settles
Jul 13 2017
Monday, Microsoft announced a $10 billion strategy to address the 34 million Americans who still lack highspeed Internet access. The good news is that they plan to use a “free” technology as the centerpiece of their strategy. The bad news (so far) is that there’s no local community role.
Microsoft’s strategy is to use what’s called TV white space spectrum. As explained in the company’s official blog, “This is unused spectrum in the UHF television bands. This powerful bandwidth is in the 600 MHz frequency range and enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees.”
Until this week, TV white space (TVWS) is not been a major topic in many U.S. broadband circles aside from those in public library systems. “Created as a result of the digital TV conversion, a free radio spectrum has been made available that nobody owns but everybody uses and shares it,” stated Don Means, Coordinator of the Gigabit Library Network. “This unlicensed spectrum is similar to Wi-Fi.”
TVWS is theoretically capable of transmitting data a mile or two away. This makes it great for wireless backhaul that libraries can use to connect TVWS routers at their facilities and remote receivers in public places such as parks, shelters, playgrounds, and community centers. Libraries are starting to adapt this technology and several organizations are helping their pioneering efforts.
Because of its ability to go around and through many obstacles such as trees hills, this makes TVWS a good infrastructure to address rural areas in particular. Microsoft estimates that 80 percent of this underserved rural population live in communities with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.
Means says, “Microsoft has doubled down on TVWS and has elevated the topic. Give gig fiber to all the libraries and schools to anchor any white space buildout in a community.”
What Comes Next?
Microsoft didn’t give details about the mechanics of facilitating TVWS adoption, though obviously $10 billion will inspire a lot of R &D and infrastructure manufacturing. Communities should expect a surge in production of devices that harness TVWS.
Harold Feld, Senior VP at Public Knowledge and telecom policy expert, says “TV white space is a proven technology. But before the Microsoft announcement, the technology was similar to the early days of Wi-Fi – it takes time for market demand to grow so vendors can experience economies of scale. Once this happens, you should expect a surge of applications.”
Means says libraries have a lot of lessons they can share as Microsoft accelerates development in this area. “Fortunately, for several years public libraries have been adapting this technology to support remote hotspots as a kind of wireless backhaul to supply library Wi-Fi hotspots,” he said. “Thanks to TVWS, libraries have facilitated in access in public places like parks, homeless shelters playgrounds and community centers. Anywhere that it’s useful for people to access basic Wi-Fi.”
When Microsoft’s strategy becomes a reality over the next few months, rural communities may see the real impact of broadband adoption. “Some of us have been hearing about white space for years,” says Frank Odasz, principal at Lone Eagle Consulting in Montana. “It would be nice if this becomes more then ‘the politics of appearances.’”
According to Microsoft’s blog, their TVWS efforts should dramatically reduce the cost of broadband deployment. “The total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap falls into a range of $8 to $12 billion. This is roughly 80 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G,” the blog states.
Microsoft hopes to use its $10 billion investment to leverage other private sector investment on a dollar-per-dollar basis, though participation by other entities remains to be seen. The company encourages other entities to take advantage of the TVWS infrastructure to deliver applications and services to network subscribers. Additionally, Microsoft wants federal and state government support in creating a regulatory-friendly environment.