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Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, has announced a strategy utilising so-called TV White Spaces spectrum – unused spectrum in the UHF television bands in the 600 MHz frequency range – to bring broadband to some 23.4 million Americans in rural areas currently unserved.
Speaking at a lunch sponsored by the Media Institute in Washington, D.C, Smith noted that currently, 34 million Americans still lack broadband Internet access, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a 25 Mbps connection. “Of these, 23.4 million live in rural parts of the US. People who live in these rural communities increasingly are unable to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities enjoyed by their urban neighbours,” he said.
Thanks to recent advancements in technology, newly adopted standards, business model innovations and a growing demand for broadened cloud services, Smith suggested the time was right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious but achievable goal – to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years by July 4th, 2022. “We believe the nation can bring broadband coverage to rural America in this timeframe, based on a new strategic approach that combines private sector capital investments focused on expanding broadband coverage through new technologies, coupled with targeted and affordable public-sector support,” he announced.
“Our call for a new strategy reflects in part our own experience as a company working around the world to make use of what’s called TV White Spaces spectrum. 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. It’s why people could watch television programs in rural communities long before the advent of satellite television. Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this spectrum, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users,” he advised, noting that in 2010, the FCC adopted rules enabling the use of TV white spaces in the United States.
“It has taken years of additional work to put in place the building blocks needed for the use of this spectrum to scale in an affordable way. We and others have worked to perfect the hardware and software technology, develop industry-wide standards and innovate our way to a practical business model. These advances have now reached a critical threshold, however, and together with increasing demand for cloud services, the market is poised to accelerate – if we take the right steps,” he suggested.
According to Smith, one of the big benefits of this new approach is a dramatic reduction in the cost of bringing broadband rates to rural communities. By relying on this mixture of technologies, the total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap falls into a range of $8 to $12 billion, some 80 per cent less than the cost of using fibre cables alone, and over 50 per cent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology such as 4G.
Although Microsoft believes the private sector can play the leading role in closing the rural broadband gap, Smith said that the public sector also has a vital role to play, with three related governmental measures needed:
“First, the FCC needs to ensure the continued use of the spectrum needed for this mixed technology model. Specifically, it will be important for the FCC to ensure that three channels below 700 MHz are available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets and rural areas. Among other things, this will help stimulate investment by hardware companies to produce the needed chips for new devices at a higher scale and lower cost.
Second, we believe that federal and state infrastructure investments should include targeted funds on a matching basis for the capital investments that will best expand coverage into rural areas that currently lack broadband access today. These funds should be made available for use by multiple technologies based on what is the most cost-effective in the region, including TV white spaces, fixed wireless and satellite usage. They should be awarded based on criteria that prioritises either accelerating broadband coverage or incentivising private sector investments in the communities where they are less likely to flow on their own.
Third, there is a need for improved data collection regarding rural broadband coverage. The FCC can help by accelerating its work to collect and report publicly on the state of broadband coverage in rural counties, thereby aiding policy makers and the private sector in making targeted investments.”
In conclusion, Smith said that as a country, the US should not settle for an outcome that leaves behind more than 23 million of its rural neighbours. “To the contrary, we can and should bring the benefits of broadband coverage to every corner of the nation.”
In response, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton, described it as “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. Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming,” he warned.