Microsoft wants all of rural America to get high-speed broadband

Microsoft wants all of rural America to get high-speed broadband
Enlarge / Illustration of a white spaces network.

Microsoft wants to connect two million rural Americans to high-speed wireless broadband by 2022, and it will get started with 12 pilot projects over the next year. The company is also offering free access to its intellectual property to help the rest of rural America get connected.

Microsoft isn’t planning to become an Internet service provider itself. Instead, the company will “invest in partnerships with telecommunications companies” building wireless networks using TV “white spaces” spectrum, Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post yesterday. “We and our partners will have at least 12 projects up and running in 12 states in the next 12 months.”

The 12 states are Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

“Our goal is not to enter the telecommunications business ourselves or even to profit directly from these projects,” Smith wrote. “We will invest in the upfront capital projects needed to expand broadband coverage, seek a revenue share from operators to recoup our investment, and then use these revenue proceeds to invest in additional projects to expand coverage further.”

Microsoft also said it will provide royalty-free access to “at least 39 patents and sample source code related to technology we’ve developed” for using white spaces spectrum in rural areas.

“Powerful bandwidth”

White spaces spectrum gets its name from its origin as the spectrum between TV channels.

“This powerful bandwidth is in the 600MHz frequency range and enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees,” Smith wrote.

The recent Federal Communications Commission auction that shifted broadcast TV licenses to mobile broadband companies like T-Mobile USA also set aside 14MHz of spectrum for unlicensed use and wireless microphones. Unlicensed spectrum isn’t restricted to any single entity—anyone can use it as long as they comply with certain rules designed to prevent interference with other devices and services.

Smith urged the FCC to “ensure that three channels below 700MHz 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.”

Microsoft has plenty of experience with white space networks overseas, “having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users,” Smith wrote. Now it’s time for white spaces networks to accelerate in the US, he wrote:

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.

Rural broadband gap

Microsoft pointed to an FCC research finding that 34 million Americans lack access to broadband with at least 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds. According to the FCC, 23.4 million of those live in rural areas.

Plenty of sparsely populated areas in the US could benefit from wireless home Internet services because they haven’t been upgraded to cable or fiber Internet networks. Microsoft said it worked with Boston Consulting Group on a study that found white space technology is the best approach to connect “communities with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.”

Because of cost constraints, satellite Internet should be used in areas with fewer than two people per square mile, while “fixed wireless and limited fiber to the home” is the best approach in areas with densities greater than 200 people per square mile, Smith wrote.

By using this mix of technologies, Microsoft says the US can eliminate the rural broadband gap at a cost of $8 billion to $12 billion, “roughly 80 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and… over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G.”

The two million Americans that Microsoft plans to connect are just a fraction of the 23.4 million lacking access. That’s why Microsoft is offering royalty-free access to its patents and sample source code, Smith wrote.

“If 23 million additional customers can access the Internet at broadband speeds, every tech company in America will benefit,” he wrote.

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