Microsoft mixing TV white space, spectrum policy and altruism

by Tammy Parker

Companies register a win-win when they not only generate profits but also improve the lives of their customers, sometimes quite dramatically. Cognizant of that, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has embarked on a global strategy to develop and promote TV white space technology as well as spread the news about the benefits of liberalized spectrum policies in conjunction with the use of dynamic spectrum-sharing technologies.

Microsoft has involved itself in lots of initiatives to bring Internet connectivity to the unconnected and underserved. TV white space (TVWS) spectrum trials in places such as Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania are being conducted under the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, and Microsoft is also involved in TVWS trials in Singapore and the Philippines. In the United Kingdom, Microsoft was involved in what was at the time the world's largest TVWS trial in Cambridge, England. That effort wrapped up during April 2012, but now the company is about to embark on a TVWS trial in Glasgow, Scotland, in partnership with the University of Strathclyde and several industry partners.

Mawingu school

Schoolchildren in Nanyuki, Kenya. (Source: Microsoft)

In all of these trials, Microsoft and its collaborators are basically using TVWS spectrum--vacant frequencies that sit between TV broadcast channels--to backhaul Wi-Fi hotspots, connecting the TVWS base station to a Wi-Fi access point which then links to end-user devices. Getting more people online potentially benefits the company because it grows the market for Microsoft products such as software, online services, entertainment and devices.

"We're covering a lot of landscape, and the amount of landscape we cover literally is growing all the time as it relates to this issue. Right now, we have a lot of engagements with industry and with government on the spectrum policy issues and, in particular, on the issue of trying to find ways to use spectrum more efficiently. One of the things we have found to be particularly effective in having those conversations is to actually get out there and do things with the technology," said Paul Garnett, director of Microsoft's technology policy group.

"I think there's a bit of a mischaracterization about how ready the technology is to be used in practice. A lot of folks would have you believe that things like TV white space and dynamic spectrum access is still just a science experiment, and it really is not," he continued.  

Microsoft's TVWS trials are key to the company's efforts to convince telecom regulators of the value of unlicensed, shared spectrum. For example, the company is working closely with Singapore's regulator to form a TVWS regulatory process.  "They're in the midst of essentially what the FCC went through a few years ago in developing its regulations," Garnett said.

Paul Garnett, Microsoft

Garnett (Source: Microsoft)

Similarly, he described the UK TVWS tests as helping regulator Ofcom "finish up its technical rules for TV white space access."

Gobs of unused spectrum

Microsoft is also involved in efforts to show that most spectrum remains unused most of the time in most places. The company's Spectrum Observatory gathers information from sensors set up in four locations. Two of the locations are in the Seattle area, one is on top of Microsoft's offices in Washington, D.C., and another is at the company's offices in Brussels.

While uncovering large amounts of unused spectrum can help the company form policy discussions, Garnett said the data also contributes to research advancements by helping Microsoft see how spectrum is used in different bands by different types of radios and technologies.

Microsoft intends to significantly expand the spectrum observation project over the next year, adding more locations around the world, such as at universities where researchers are also interested in such information.

Though much has been made of the possibilities for using TVWS to introduce affordable broadband access to developing markets such as Africa, Garnett noted that urban areas in developed markets also require technologies that can deliver more bandwidth to consumers on a less expensive per-bit basis. In major cities, one can often find a couple hundred or more megahertz of unused TV frequencies that can be used for broadband access. Even in densely populated locales such as Singapore or London, where there is heavy use of TV broadcast frequencies, there could be upwards of 50 MHz of TVWS frequencies available, he said.

Garnett charges that current TVWS rules enacted by the FCC, which has led the world in setting early TVWS usage policy, are too strict. "The rules are written in such a way that white space devices can't have access to [all of the] unused channels because of adjacent channel rules and other rules that the FCC adopted to protect incumbent broadcasters from interference. We think that they're probably too conservative," he said.

As part of its championing of liberalized spectrum policies, Microsoft is a charter member of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, which recently chose London for its headquarters. The group's mission is to influence regulators to support TVWS technology and spectrum sharing.

"The Dynamic Spectrum Alliance is in many ways a bet on the future and the future of this emerging set of technologies. It's not just about unlicensed access to unused frequencies. It's about all kinds of access to unused frequencies using emerging technologies, Garnett said.

Meanwhile, the future of one of Microsoft's TVWS initiatives remains up in the air. In July 2011, the FCC approved Microsoft's application to become a U.S. TVWS database administrator and engage in public tests. The FCC requires TV band devices contact an authorized database system to obtain a list of channels that are available for their operation at their individual locations, and they must operate only on those channels.

However, this particular Microsoft effort may have stalled. Garnett said the FCC gave the company "permission to go through the certification process," but he declined to comment on whether Microsoft is still interested in becoming an official TVWS database administrator.

"We do prototype databases for our pilot projects when we need to. Like in Singapore, we do have a pilot database for that project," Garnett said.

Rival Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) TVWS database system secured FCC approval for operation during June 2013.

Costs of doing good business

All of Microsoft's efforts to champion a TVWS industry and lobby for spectrum sharing incur costs but have no immediate financial returns for Microsoft. However, they could breed future upsides.

"We're trying to take a longer-term strategic view on the issue of access," Garnett said. "Doing low-cost access networks in partnership with ISPs in developing markets makes perfect sense, and, of course, over time those markets will become more mature."

Microsoft recently joined the Alliance for Affordable Internet, which wants to drive down Internet prices in developing countries. Garnett said that in Africa, "where the majority of the top 10 growth economies are located," it is true that many people cannot afford broadband access if it costs more than a few dollars a month. But he expects that in the future, as economies expand and as broadband prices fall, people they will be interested in gaining Internet access and purchasing technology, such as Microsoft-brand products.

But Microsoft has indicated it is not interested in developing technology for technology's sake, particularly when it comes to the needs of the developing world.

Company Chairman Bill Gates is skeptical about Google's Project Loon. "When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that," he told Bloomberg Businessweek.

While that seems to indicate Gates thinks companies should be more focused on providing the basic necessities of life rather than Internet access, Garnett disagrees. "I think what he was saying was that we need to focus on projects that have maximum impact for the least dollars spent," he said.

"Science experiments aren't the things that are really going to be able to help people in emerging markets today. A balloon flying over Africa is not going to be particularly helpful. But bringing real broadband access to a person in Africa so they can have access to [things such as] healthcare and education and markets, that can have real impact," Garnett said.

He contends that bridging the digital divide can have vast repercussions for improving the human condition. A child in Kenya who lives in poverty without electricity or clean water can gain immediate benefit from a broadband Internet connection thanks to having improved information access as well as the hope for further beneficial change.

All too often, discussions about mundane, technical issues such as TV white space and spectrum skip over the human element, Garnett said. "Technology really doesn't matter unless it has a positive impact on humanity," he added.

Microsoft mixing TV white space, spectrum policy and altruism