Microsoft eyes white spaces for $10B plan to bring broadband to rural users

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Microsoft believes white space spectrum is ideal for serving users in rural areas.

Microsoft today will unveil a proposal to help form a $10 billion public/private initiative to provide wireless broadband to rural users in the United States, according to multiple reports.

And it’s looking to unlicensed TV white space (TVWS) spectrum to facilitate the offering.

The Seattle Times was among the first to report that Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith is expected to introduce the plan during a speech today in Washington. The company will propose that corporate and government funds support the service, which aims to provide access to the 23.4 million unconnected Americans who live in areas where broadband isn’t easily available.

Microsoft has long pursued white space technology, which the company claims is an efficient and affordable way to provide access in rural areas. In a May filing with the FCC, the software developer unveiled plans to continue to evaluate the suitability of white space spectrum for narrowband sensor operations and to study the efficacy of those systems for precision agricultural applications. And earlier this year during a Senate committee hearing, it said that unlicensed spectrum is vital in low-, mid- and high bands to meet ever-increasing demand for technologies that use licensed spectrum.

 “We strongly support action at the FCC to ensure that enough TV white-spaces channels remain available for unlicensed use and hope the FCC will finalize commercially reasonable white-spaces rules soon so we can move ahead,” Dave Heiner, Microsoft’s VP of regulatory affairs, said in March in written testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet.

Closing the so-called “digital divide” between rural users and those in more highly populated areas has become a top priority for both federal authorities and some service providers. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, for instance, plans to meet with rural broadband providers, entrepreneurs and small businesses during a mid-Atlantic tour of three states next week to discuss the matter. And AT&T is moving aggressively to expand its fixed wireless internet offering in states including Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana as part of its participation in the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II.

Not everyone is thrilled with Microsoft’s plan to use white spaces, however. The National Association of Broadcasters slammed Microsoft’s proposal, noting the software developer’s decision to sit out the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves, which ended a few months ago.

“It’s the height of arrogance for Microsoft—a $540 billion company—to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s executive vice president of communications, said in a terse statement. “Microsoft’s white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure. Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming.”