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Broadcasters, advocacy groups and nonprofits weigh in on Microsoft's magical broadband

The good, the bad and the ugly parts of Redmond's white space internet

By Andrew Silver, 13 Jul 2017

Analysis On Tuesday, Microsoft announced it will pay third-party ISPs in the US to offer wireless broadband on unused TV spectrum, or "white space."

As The Register's Kieren McCarthy argued, the financial logic behind this choice is questionable at best – and Microsoft hopes to take a share of revenue spoils. Advocacy groups and researchers are generally saying nice things about the Windows giant's Rural Broadband Initiative, but some point out it may not really solve the lack-of-decent-internet-access problem in rural America.

Over the next year, 12 pilot projects will be "up and running" in 12 states, we're told: Washington, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, New York, Virginia and Georgia.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents US telly outlets, didn't mince words.

"Microsoft's white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure," an NAB spokesperson told The Reg by email. "Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming."

The spokesperson added that "it's the height of arrogance for Microsoft" to "demand free, unlicensed spectrum" after "refusing to bid" on broadcast TV spectrum during a recent FCC auction, which was meant to redistribute low-band frequencies (around the 600MHz frequency range) that are useful for wireless broadband.

Responding to part of the NAB's criticism during a question at the presentation for the Rural Broadband Initiative on Tuesday, Microsoft president Brad Smith said he wanted the NAB and Microsoft "not just to hurl insults at each other" but instead "sit down and solve some practical problems" – in particular bringing internet to the millions of Americans who don't have it.

He admitted that it's taken time for Microsoft's efforts to scale, but "You don't create a PowerPoint slide showing the future and have a market with products the next week," he said.

He added that Microsoft is not asking for a lot of spectrum, especially compared to what has already been auctioned off.

'The right moment for this kind of infrastructure investment'

Harold Feld, the Senior VP at Public Knowledge, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group for promoting broadband access for all, says that the NAB has been arguing against using TV white space for broadband for years.

But "this is the right moment for this kind of infrastructure investment," he told us. President Trump and the Republican Party in general have been promoting better broadband access.

The problem is that telecom companies often expand service out in densely populated cities first and rural cities and towns are often not covered with broadband until much later on. The question is how to pay for it – "In some ways, this is free money," he says.

Tad Deriso is CEO of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, a nonprofit based in South Boston, Virginia, that builds communication infrastructure. His organization partnered with Microsoft and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission back in 2015 to bring broadband to 100 households in the state – in particular students' homes – by taking advantage of unused TV white space between 608-614MHz and 652-663MHz.

He told The Register that many families serviced are on free or reduced lunch programs, and can't afford to pay for broadband. The program offers free internet for households that only access websites whitelisted by school routers (so it's meant for educational content). There's a paid service if homes want to use the internet without restriction for personal use.

There are 16 tower sites (with 9 more planned to be up by the end of the year). The tower sites are connected to base stations and receivers on the side of homes – a cord runs through the wall to connect to a Wi‑Fi router. He says the farthest that signal still works with decent quality today is about 5 miles from the tower sites – you get about 2‑5 Mbps down (with no limit on upload speed).

The goal is to connect 1,000 households by the end of the year, he says.

'FCC is committed to bridging the digital divide'

A spokesperson for the FCC said in a statement about Microsoft's announcement: "The FCC is committed to bridging the digital divide and ensuring that all Americans can enjoy the opportunities provided by high-speed Internet access. We will continue to work in partnership with industry, state and local governments, and the non-profit community to achieve that goal.”

(The statement also pointed out that on Tuesday, FCC Chairman Pai was visiting South Boston, Virginia to learn more about Microsoft's work on bringing broadband to students in rural Virginia.)

Sharon Strover, a telecommunications researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the economic benefits of broadband (in particular in rural areas), told us by email: "Using white spaces does make a lot of sense for rural areas, where that spectrum will not face competitive pressures from other users."

She pointed out there were several experiments ongoing in this area already. She was curious what broadcasters pay to use the spectrum (Microsoft did not have an answer).

Marty Newell, CEO at The Center for Rural Strategies, an advocacy group that aims to improve economic/social conditions in countrysides and elsewhere, told The Reg that many of the estimates of the number of Americans without broadband are underestimates, because companies might claim they offer one thing but might not do that in reality.

"It's great" that large companies such as Microsoft and Google are getting involved in offering internet to rural communities – "They have some piles of cash," he says.

He said one problem with adoption is that it might be difficult for new internet services to get started in rural areas – existing services might be unwilling to offer up their own infrastructure (such as fiber cables), so new services would have to set up their own infrastructure.

That's not the only potential problem.

'Fiber-based technology'

Phillip Dampier, who directs Stop the Cap! – an advocacy group in Rochester, New York, that promotes broadband quality – told The Register by email: "While we support any initiative that helps rural customers obtain broadband service, we would prefer to see investment in fiber-based technology that assures an urban-rural speed divide does not emerge as the next big broadband problem."

He said, "Microsoft's solution, while novel, is likely to be mired in industry politics and potentially be stalled for years, as Microsoft lobbies for spectrum set-asides for its white space broadband." This would be particularly problematic in dense population areas such as the northeastern US, where some TV stations are already having to share spectrum because of repacking.

He added that New York's current rural broadband program "is making significant progress" by getting providers to expand service. "If Microsoft can deliver its wireless service quickly and efficiently, good for them, but no state should stall its agenda for rural broadband expansion based on today's announcement," he said.

CEO Shirley Bloomfield of the Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) – an advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia, for telecom companies that work in the rural broadband arena – told The Reg by email: "Our members are based in rural America and already utilize a variety of technologies – fiber, spectrum, cable plant, etc – to reach rural consumers."

Bloomfield added: "They're always eager for more tools in the toolkit in terms of network capabilities, as long as they're advancing the goal of robust affordable and sustainable broadband in rural America. We hope this is a positive step in that regard, but even the most cutting-edge wireless technology is also going to need lots of fiber backhaul to make a compelling broadband product."

Microsoft has not yet responded to a request for comment on the criticisms of its program, besides pointing to Brad Smith's existing response to the NAB's criticisms during the presentation. ®

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