Microsoft soldiers on with its TV white spaces initiative

Microsoft is a big believer that TV white spaces, the unused spectrum between TV channels, can be a gamechanger in terms of bringing broadband to rural America.

TV white spaces technology plays a prominent role in the company’s Airband Initiative, which it launched in the summer of 2017. The initial goal of Airband was to reach 2 million people in the United States who don’t have broadband with connectivity by July 2022. Recently, the company raised that goal to reach 3 million Americans in rural areas by July 2022.

The company’s strategy is to strike partnerships to bridge the so-called “digital divide” across the United States. Currently, Microsoft has established partnerships in 16 states, and the company expects to be in 25 states by the end of 2019. For example, it recently was named as part of a consortium working with the wireless operator C Spire along with the vendors Airspan Networks, Nokia and Siklu.

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith wrote in a blog post in December, “We’re confident that using a mixed model that combines wireless technologies including 4G and TV white spaces, traditional fiber-based connectivity, and satellite coverage can dramatically reduce the cost and time of extending broadband access to rural communities across America.”

The FCC finds that 23.4 million Americans don’t have access to broadband-speed internet. “We’ve been very focused on serving the rural areas,” said Shelley McKinley, head of Microsoft’s technology and corporate responsibility group, in an interview with FierceWireless. “As a tech company, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to serve this digital divide.”

Recently, there’s been a lot of attention paid to wireless technologies that tap spectrum such as millimeter wave (mmWave), which carriers are using as part of their 5G initiatives. But mmWave has drawbacks in that the spectrum is very susceptible to interference, often requiring a direct line-of-sight to work properly. Conversely, TV white spaces spectrum can handle frequencies that travel quite a long distance. McKinley said this makes sense for rural areas. “When you think of the areas that need to be covered, they’re often challenging geographies and low population,” she said. “This [white spaces] is a type of technology that’s quite helpful in these areas.”

She said TV white spaces technology has evolved, adding, “TV white spaces is at a point that it can be used very well for this type of application and it’s much cheaper than laying a fiber cable; to connect the U.S. that way would be like $60 billion."

TV White Spaces Hardware

When Microsoft launched its Airband initiative in 2017, a TV white spaces network connectivity device cost more than $800, wrote Smith in his blog. “Today similar and even higher-quality, and more-capable devices cost less than $300,” he said. Microsoft has invested in hardware with three vendors to advance its TV white spaces goal. Those vendors are Radwin, Redline and Adaptrum.

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One problem that Microsoft has complained about in terms of bridging the digital divide is that the data from the FCC is not accurate as far as Microsoft is concerned. McKinley said it’s important to have accurate data about where connectivity is lacking in order to know where funding should be allocated. She described the FCC’s estimations as “flawed data after flawed data.”  She said part of the problem is that the questions asked of internet service providers are flawed, in themselves. The FCC asks ISPs where they “could” provide service as opposed to asking them “where they do provide service.” 

Microsoft has done some of its own independent research to point out the disparity between the FCC’s estimates and the reality to rural Americans. For example, in Ferry County, Washington, the FCC shows 100% broadband coverage. But Microsoft found that only 2% of households were actually using broadband speeds.

McKinley said the FCC’s data shows that there have been significant improvements in closing the digital divide. “We haven’t seen that,” she said, “Our data that we’ve made available from Microsoft shows the problem is much, much larger.”