Microsoft Aims to Improve Internet Connection in US Heartland

Microsoft on Monday unveiled an ambitious plan that would use technology found in the television white space spectrum to develop affordable broadband Internet access for at least 2 million consumers. [Read the “Edit” all the way down]

The aim is to bridge the technology gap between urban and rural American communities.

The spectrum is a currently unused portion in the 600 Mhz frequency range designated for UHF tv bands, which allows wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees into rural areas.

Microsoft has deployed 20 such projects in 17 countries across the world, including Columbia, Kenya and Jamaica, providing access to a total of 185,000 people.

Microsoft Chief executive Brad Smith defined the plan at a high-powered luncheon in Washington, D.C., which was sponsored by the Mass media Institute.

Thirty-four million People in america still lack usage of broadband, he pointed out, and although 23 million still live in rural areas, progress for broadband penetration in the united states has plateaued.

“This it not merely about watching YouTube videos on tablets, as enjoyable as that may be,” Smith told guests at the luncheon. It’s about education. It’s about healthcare. It’s about agriculture and growing a small business. It is a vital part of modern day life.”


Business Case

Microsoft issued a white paper on the rural broadband gap and how best to approach it, based on research from Boston Consulting Group.

Eighty percent of rural areas would benefit from the white spaces spectrum for populations of 2 to 200 people per square mile, according to the paper. Satellite coverage would work best for smaller areas, while set cellular would best provide more densely populated areas.

Microsoft will work with a group of investment partners through its Rural Airband Initiative to have 12 different tasks up and running over the next 12 months in 12 different states, Smith said. The company will make initial purchases in capital costs and then work with local operators on a revenue-share plan to recoup investments.

Microsoft also has partnered with the National 4-H Council to train people on the latest technology. Deployment of the broadband initiative will improve Access to the internet for students in local universities, provide telemedicine in rural hospitals, and offer access to higher opportunities to employ precision farming, which uses sensors to estimate the specific needs for water and other resources. In addition, it will aid small businesses and specific consumers.

The effort is meant to be a catalyst for a larger industry-wide plan that could expand broadband to the nation’s rural population at a cost of between US$8 billion and $12 billion over a five-year period. Such a plan would cost 80 percent less than the price of fiber by itself and 50 percent significantly less than using fixed wireless technology like 4G, the company said.

Microsoft has not specified a cost attached to its own 12-state plan, but said it planned to reach out to additional partners and that the public sector would have to play a role for expanded broadband coverage with federal and state infrastructure investment.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was in South Boston, Virginia, on Monday, learning more about Microsoft’s initiatives to provide broadband service to thousands of students in rural parts of the state.

“The FCC is committed to bridging the digital divide and ensuring that all Us citizens can enjoy the opportunities provided by high-speed Internet access,” said Tina Pelkey, the FCC’s new press secretary. “We will continue to work in partnership with industry, condition and local governments, and the nonprofit community to achieve that goal.”

Public Knowledge has urged the FCC to make better use of TV white spaces by managing the general public airwaves.

“Even though the technology has been deployed in some rural neighborhoods for high-tech accuracy farming and some wi-fi ISPs, the expense of equipment has discouraged wide-spread adoption,” said Harold Feld, mature vice leader of General public Knowledge.

The group has urged the FCC to make the technology more affordable, but resistance from the Country wide Association of Broadcasters has stymied that effort, he told Buzz-TIme.


Promise and Pitfalls

The plan is a positive step, noted Shirley Bloomfield, president of NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association.

However, “even the most cutting-edge technology is going to need a lot of fiber backhaul to make a compelling broadband product,” she told Buzz-TIme.

White space spectrum technology is appealing, but it’s very expensive unless you get enough users or participating organizations to make it cost-effective, observed broadband technology consultant Craig Settles.

“Microsoft is to white space what Google is to fiber,” he told Buzz-Time. “Both companies have the money and the market credibility to drive adoption, or at least experimentation with technology.

In order for the program to work and generate income, Microsoft needs to be able to reach critical mass within a certain time frame. Google has run into that problem with deployment of Google Fiber.

Every once in a while, Microsoft — whose operating system for desktop computers has dominated the industry for years — takes on an initiative that is beyond its comfort zone, said independent telecom analyst Jeff Kagan.

“The future of Microsoft’s business lies in several different areas,” he told Buzz-TIme. “They obviously see this as something that’s important to their business. It has towards what Microsoft will be tomorrow.”

Our original published version of this story indicated that Microsoft’s intend to provide broadband access for at least 2 million consumers would cost between US$8 billion and $12 billion. However, that amount does not accurately reflect Microsoft’s investment in the overall rural broadband plan, regarding to company rep Lindsey Lombardi. “The total capital and preliminary operating cost to get rid of the rural broadband space falls into a range of $8 to $12 billion,” Microsoft Leader Brad Smith said. However, Microsoft hasn’t attached a money amount to its spending on the effort it announced.


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Microsoft Aims to Improve Internet Connection in US Heartland