Microsoft’s fixed wireless Airband program gains momentum with new operator, vendor partners

Microsoft's Airband effort is geared toward deploying internet services into rural areas in part with TV White Spaces spectrum. (Microsoft)

Microsoft’s Airband effort appears to be gaining steam through the company’s steady announcements of additional carrier and vendor participants. The effort is noteworthy in that it is a nonprofit attempt by Microsoft to, in part, leverage TV White Spaces spectrum to build out fixed wireless internet services in rural areas of the United States, thus crossing the so-called digital divide.

Microsoft announced the program in July of 2017, promising to invest “in partnerships with telecommunications companies with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in rural America by 2022. We and our partners will have at least 12 projects up and running in 12 states in the next 12 months.”

The company said it would engage with carriers and vendors through public-private partnerships, and each one of those deals would be unique. In some cases Microsoft is investing directly into the telecommunications companies, but in others is only acting as a facilitator.

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Further, Microsoft holds a number of patents related to TV White Space technology, and the company is offering those patents royalty free for use in the program. Microsoft added that all revenues generated from its Airband effort will be reinvested into providing broadband.

As the project enters its second year, Microsoft appears to have gained some momentum in the space with the announcement in just the past few months of several new participating carriers and vendors. Specifically:

  • Network Business Systems in Illinois said it will work to cover 126,700 people with “a mix of technologies including TV White Spaces.”

  • RTO Wireless in rural New York and Maine will connect 290,000 people using TV White Spaces and CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum.

  • Agile Networks said it will expand broadband to 110,000 people in Ohio using technologies including TV White Spaces.

  • And Microsoft said it awarded grants to operators in the United Statesincluding CV Wireless in Essex County, New York; Skylark Wireless in Mingo County, West Virginia; and Numbers4Health in Texas, Maine and Compton, Californiaand globally to hasten the program.

On the vendor side, Microsoft in recent weeks has announced deals with both Redline Communications and Radwin to ensure suitable equipment for those TV White Space buildouts.

Of course, Microsoft’s efforts on the rural broadband front are part of a much wider trend. For example, the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) auction recently awarded $1.5 billion to telecommunications companies across the country for rural broadband deployments, and many of those companies plan to use fixed wireless technologies for their buildouts.

Indeed, a wide range of major players, including C Spire, Windstream, AT&T and others are building out fixed wireless services in rural areasthough many are using spectrum bans outside of TV White Spaces.