How Microsoft wants to bring broadband to rural Americans

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Microsoft is working to help bring broadband internet access to rural Americans.

Old, unused TV signals could soon become the rural broadband of the future — but the TV stations of today have some qualms about the idea.

People have been making claims like this for “white spaces” connectivity since the early 2000s. But this time around, it’s Microsoft (MSFT) that’s putting its money and influence behind the effort.

And nearly nine years after the Federal Communications Commission approved the concept , that company and other white-spaces advocates can finally start pointing to real-world results.

Surfing on the airwaves

The notion the FCC began studying in 2002 goes like this: Since broadcasters don’t use all of the available television airwaves —  and since that spectrum, expanded by a recent FCC auction , reaches long distances — let’s allow internet providers to use them.

That could deliver downloads of 10 megabits per second or faster up to 10 miles from a transmitter — at half the deployment cost of LTE wireless.

But because those openings aren’t uniform nationwide, the FCC couldn’t simply offer one block of spectrum. Instead, it’s had to create a database for white-spaces devices to verify they’re limiting themselves to vacant airwaves.

After testing this concept for more than a decade in the U.S. and abroad, Microsoft wants to take it nationwide.

In a July 10 report and a July 11 speech by president and chief legal officer Brad Smith, the company outlined how white-spaces technology can bring broadband to 80% of the 23.4 million rural Americans lacking it by July 4, 2022.

To get there, Microsoft will invest in white-spaces providers, offer free licensing of 39 patents covering the technology, and support digital-skills training from the National 4-H Council and other groups.

As for the remaining 20% of unconnected rural Americans, Microsoft thinks satellite (historically plagued by data caps) suffices for more isolated users, while denser populations merit fiber-optic and fixed-wireless connections.  

Microsoft puts this vision’s capital and initial operating costs at $8 to $12 billion, although its share will be considerably less: It estimates that its direct investments will bring white-spaces broadband to 2 million people by 2022.

That still amounts to a significant white-spaces endorsement from a big company — something the technology has lacked.

“We’re now at a point where things have gelled,” said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at the tech-policy group Public Knowledge who backs white spaces as “the duct tape of rural broadband” that can patch gaps in coverage. “What you need is something to jump-start it.”

A start in Virginia

For on-the-ground proof of this potential, Microsoft points to the test it’s backed in Charlotte and Halifax counties in southern Virginia .

In that rural area — where OpenSignal’s crowdsourced coverage map shows spotty LTE even along major roads — Microsoft and partner Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. have brought broadband with speeds that are faster than DSL to some 130 households, with faster and more widespread access expected this year. Still, the speeds are below cable internet rates.

Mid-Atlantic Broadband CEO Tad Deriso said those users — whose options before amounted to “satellite, dial-up or nothing” — had downloads of ”right around 5 megabits per second” from as far as four and a half miles away. Uploads are slower, as happens with most wired broadband outside fiber.

Deriso said that ongoing channel-bonding tweaks should get those speeds as high as 15 to 25 megabits per second. That top number is considered true broadband according to the FCC.

Mid-Atlantic Broadband did get help from public investments in broadband : Twelve of its 16 transmitter sites are at schools with fiber-optic links.

Deriso said the technology has lived up to advance billing in keeping broadband out of the way of TV broadcasts — unlike a test MBCC and another vendor ran a few years earlier.

“It’s been easy sailing,” he said. “We’ve had no interference issues with the broadcast stations.”

The technology will get a bigger test later this year when a partner internet provider, B2X Online , will start selling access. B2X CEO Warren Kane said it will offer three tiers: free access to whitelisted educational sites, $10 a month for downloads up to 2 Mbps, and $40 a month for 5 Mbps or more. While he said he’s still deciding what exact speeds to advertise, neither paid service will include a data cap.

Deriso said he sees no other viable broadband system in his firm’s rural context: “We’re all-in on this type of technology in our little footprint down here.”

Microsoft’s big request: one more channel

The tricky part of Microsoft’s agenda is its request that the FCC make one additional white-spaces channel available in major markets.

The National Association of Broadcasters — long skeptics of the white-spaces concept — has not been amused by this. In a press release , spokesman Dennis Wharton called it “the height of arrogance” and asked why the company hadn’t bid on that spectrum in the FCC’s recent auction.

“It’s Microsoft that is asking for something new from the FCC,” he said in a follow-up email that noted broadcasters aren’t seeking new spectrum for their pending conversion to a next-generation TV standard , ATSC 3.0, that will let them offer data services. “We vigorously oppose that idea, because of the negative impact on TV broadcasters.”

Broadcasters in particular fear that smaller stations that relay network signal to isolated areas will get squeezed out — a point Craig Fugate, a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Obama, made in a Friday op-ed warning that rural residents could miss storm warnings.

Feld said this extra channel wasn’t needed in rural areas but would allow economies of scale nationwide — in turn driving down white-spaces equipment costs, today on the order of $800 for a receiver.

That political argument will not be settled quickly. But by the time it does, white-spaces technology should no longer be a blank space on the broadband map.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.