Analysis: How Will Microsoft’s Investment Affect Rural Communities?
Microsoft’s $10 billion plan for rural broadband will support a specific technology that holds promise for serving rural America. But communities still need to focus on network ownership, which can determine how broadband gets used in economic development, education, and healthcare.
Monday, Microsoft announced a $10 billion strategy to address the 34 million Americans who still lack highspeed Internet access. The good news is that they plan to use a “free” technology as the centerpiece of their strategy. The bad news (so far) is that there’s no local community role.
Microsoft’s strategy is to use what’s called TV white space spectrum. As explained in the company’s official blog, “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.”
Until this week, TV white space (TVWS) is not been a major topic in many U.S. broadband circles aside from those in public library systems. “Created as a result of the digital TV conversion, a free radio spectrum has been made available that nobody owns but everybody uses and shares it,” stated Don Means, Coordinator of the Gigabit Library Network. “This unlicensed spectrum is similar to Wi-Fi.”
TVWS is theoretically capable of transmitting data a mile or two away. This makes it great for wireless backhaul that libraries can use to connect TVWS routers at their facilities and remote receivers in public places such as parks, shelters, playgrounds, and community centers. Libraries are starting to adapt this technology and several organizations are helping their pioneering efforts.
Because of its ability to go around and through many obstacles such as trees hills, this makes TVWS a good infrastructure to address rural areas in particular. Microsoft estimates that 80 percent of this underserved rural population live in communities with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.
Means says, “Microsoft has doubled down on TVWS and has elevated the topic. Give gig fiber to all the libraries and schools to anchor any white space buildout in a community.”
What Comes Next?
Microsoft didn’t give details about the mechanics of facilitating TVWS adoption, though obviously $10 billion will inspire a lot of R &D and infrastructure manufacturing. Communities should expect a surge in production of devices that harness TVWS.
Harold Feld, Senior VP at Public Knowledge and telecom policy expert, says “TV white space is a proven technology. But before the Microsoft announcement, the technology was similar to the early days of Wi-Fi – it takes time for market demand to grow so vendors can experience economies of scale. Once this happens, you should expect a surge of applications.”
Means says libraries have a lot of lessons they can share as Microsoft accelerates development in this area. “Fortunately, for several years public libraries have been adapting this technology to support remote hotspots as a kind of wireless backhaul to supply library Wi-Fi hotspots,” he said. “Thanks to TVWS, libraries have facilitated in access in public places like parks, homeless shelters playgrounds and community centers. Anywhere that it’s useful for people to access basic Wi-Fi.”
When Microsoft’s strategy becomes a reality over the next few months, rural communities may see the real impact of broadband adoption. “Some of us have been hearing about white space for years,” says Frank Odasz, principal at Lone Eagle Consulting in Montana. “It would be nice if this becomes more then ‘the politics of appearances.’”
According to Microsoft’s blog, their TVWS efforts should dramatically reduce the cost of broadband deployment. “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 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G,” the blog states.
Microsoft hopes to use its $10 billion investment to leverage other private sector investment on a dollar-per-dollar basis, though participation by other entities remains to be seen. The company encourages other entities to take advantage of the TVWS infrastructure to deliver applications and services to network subscribers. Additionally, Microsoft wants federal and state government support in creating a regulatory-friendly environment.
Are Communities Driving the Future or Just Along for the Ride?
What some community broadband advocates found interesting was that the Microsoft announcement didn’t address the communities other than a pledge to provide broadband technology training. Advocates remember some of the early miscues of Google’s gig network effort in Kansas City.
For example, Connecting for Good, a Kansas City local nonprofit, and the Rosedale Development Association proposed creating a Wi-Fi co-op that would tap into Google Fiber to provide connectivity for Rosedale, a low-income community.
Google pretty much slammed the door on the idea before the group could even develop a specific proposal.
What’s really at issue here is that if communities are not holding the driving wheel on broadband projects and they don’t own or at least rent the vehicle, they are ultimately a passenger in someone else’s ride. At some point, the needs of the network owner could trump the needs of the community.
Odasz recalls that, “we have not seen Microsoft do any meaningful outreach to rural America as in terms of meeting the particular web-based challenges that these communities have. Microsoft’s TVWS strategy relies heavily on incumbents and politicians, which historically have fallen short on resolving rural broadband needs.”
Odasz believes that the private sector is all in favor of training that could lead to jobs such as programming or working in a data center. However, they fall short when teaching displaced workers in manufacturing or mining how to become e-commerce entrepreneurs, or how to use broadband to improve in their current blue-collar or professional Jobs. The politics of communication regulation have led politicians to support “incumbents” – the legacy telephone companies – rather than new approaches. Programs to help constituents defray the cost of broadband can be hit or miss.
Similar to Google’s entry into broadband, the Microsoft TVWS announcement is good news for getting infrastructure into more places, particularly within rural communities. The jury is still out has to how much this new connectivity will improve local economies, education, and healthcare for those in the communities who need broadband most.
Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of Building the Gigabit City. His latest analyst’s report is “The Co-op’s Broadband Plan for Success.”