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If at first you don't succeed, you're Microsoft pushing its magical white space broadband

This time, Brad, this time

By Kieren McCarthy, 11 Jul 2017

Analysis As you enter the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, you step back in time. Abraham Lincoln stayed here just prior to his inauguration; Martin Luther King made the final edits to his most famous speech in its lobby; and Alexander Graham Bell used as it as the venue to demonstrate a coast-to-coast telephone call.

On Tuesday, Microsoft's president Brad Smith also took us back in time: to a period when Microsoft decided that the answer to rural internet access in the US was to use the "white space" in between TV channels for data transfer.

It was 2007 and Microsoft had created a coalition with other internet heavyweights to argue for the use of white space. It had developed a device that it sent to America's comms watchdog, the FCC, to blow apart the myth that any attempt to use this space would cause interference with TV broadcasts and radio mics. This was the future.

Unfortunately, the device didn't work: it couldn't detect unused TV spectrum and it did in fact interfere with other devices. Microsoft's coalition was hit with determined opposition from America's four largest television networks, which joined local TV stations and even Dolly Parton in opposing the idea.

But undeterred, Microsoft pushed forward, raving about what could be "Wi‑Fi on steroids" – even though the Wi‑Fi Alliance warned that the technology was nothing like Wi‑Fi and it would sue Microsoft if it attempted to use the brand name.

Fail

But Microsoft pushed on, and after years of heavy lobbying persuaded the FCC to pass rules allowing for access to white space in order to prove its potential. There was even a deployment in the wild – and we're not talking about the one that failed yet again at a conference in Las Vegas and disrupted local TV stations. Nor the one that knocked out CNBC's radio mics in Florida.

Yes, it was a long struggle, but 2012 was the Year of White Space. A new FCC database went live in January helping to find unused spectrum and so avoid that pesky interference with TV stations. New trials meant that no one in rural areas would have to go without broadband ever again.

The National Association of Broadcasters even withdrew its appeal against the FCC's decision to allow white space usage in the first place. It had taken a long while and a lot of work, but finally "White‑Fi" was a go. And just to prove it, Microsoft covered its campus with one of these new networks and even went to Africa to show how great it was (nothing to do with Africa's uncluttered spectrum, of course).

Fail

OK, so 2012 didn't happen. But the very next year, 2013, Microsoft was displaying this revolutionary new technology at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. Free internet access. Amazing.

OK, so 2013 didn't really happen either. But that didn't stop 'em: Microsoft pushed yet more trials in Ireland and Singapore. Its databases covered more and more areas of the US and the UK. Nothing was going to stop this technology now. Here it comes...

Just one problem: the companies that actually control the spectrum bands that Microsoft et al want to use aren't too keen on them having access, leaving them fighting for constantly changing spectrum scraps.

Oh – and there's the fact that it costs about $1,000 in equipment to connect up a household to this revolutionary new technology. Imagine if you went to an ISP to get internet access for your new apartment and they told you installation costs were $1,000. Would you go for it?

We'll be honest, we gave up on Microsoft and its White Space white elephant at this point. But Microsoft didn't.

Three years later, it's 2016, and the Beast of Redmond's determination to draw parallels with Wi‑Fi – even though the technologies are completely different – finally pays off. Microsoft through sheer force of will gets the 802.11af standard recognized. White‑Fi or Super Wi‑Fi is here and it's official!

Fail

Yep. Nope.

OK, so now it's July 2017 and Brad Smith, the new power behind the throne at Microsoft, isn't letting this go.

He told the assembled at the Willard Hotel (most of whom have no idea of its long and tortuous history) that Microsoft has the solution for rural America and broadband provision: that's right, TV white space.

It is "the best solution for reaching over 80 percent of people in rural America who lack broadband today," Smith told The New York Times in a pre-interview.

So what's changed? According to Smith, the technology is better and, critically, it has figured out how to make money from it – see, all those international trials were worth it in the end.

Here's the deal: Microsoft will pay third-party ISPs to set up White‑Fi networks and then take a share of their resulting revenues. Result: win‑win.

It has paid Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities $250,000 and, combined with $500,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and $250,000 of its own money, the commission plans to get 1,000 people online by the end of the year. So just $1,000 per customer.

Customers will be given "free" internet with limited access to specific websites, or they can pay $10 a month for access to the wider internet. That's at 4Mbps – which is basically enough for email and web surfing but will struggle with video. Or they can pay $40 a month for up to 10Mbps, which will give you high-quality video. Apparently, 90 per cent of those who have signed up for it have gone for the free, limited option.

Fail

And that is why White‑Fi is still going nowhere. Even when you account for the interference problems. Even when you account for the real-time technological requirements – moving frequency according to location. Even when you consider that it costs $1,000 to connect people to the network. The issue is that there is a very low concentration of people in the only areas that need this technology. And those people are not willing to pay much to get fast internet access.

This is why Comcast and AT&T haven't already saturated rural America with broadband access: because it doesn't make sense financially.

So how does Microsoft continue to delude itself – after a decade of researching, developing, funding and lobbying – that white space is worth chasing?

First, it is persuading itself that if it can get White‑Fi projects up and running that economies of scale will massively reduce the price of the equipment: it hopes from $1,000 down to $200 or even $100. That is likely wishful thinking.

But critically, the reason Smith was in Washington, DC, and not in Microsoft's hometown of Seattle is that he needs federal and local government to make it happen.

"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," Smith pleaded.

Fail?

And the cost? "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." In other words, we need the government to pick up half the cost of rolling it out.

To make that argument, Smith claims that White‑Fi is the cheapest way to get the roughly 25 million people in rural areas connected. "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. This is roughly 80 per cent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it's over 50 per cent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G."

It's a good goal, and presumably Smith and Microsoft were hoping that the much-touted infrastructure bill pushed by the Trump administration would have edged into some kind of reality by now.

If the White House does finally emerge from its self-inflicted wars and actually get down to legislating, it is possible that white space broadband could become a pet project – and Microsoft would be right there ready to push it along.

That is, if it's willing to take on the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which argued to the FCC just this month that – you guessed it – White‑Fi interferes with their TV stations. They're still not keen.

"Microsoft has been making promises about white-spaces technology for well over a decade," wrote the NAB's associate general counsel. "At what point do we finally conclude that the white spaces project is a bust?"

But Brad ain't listening. Brad ain't listening. ®

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