During the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Silicon Valley, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced plans to offer broadband services to 500,000 Indian villages by taking advantage of "white spaces" technology.
White spaces refers to spectrum that was originally awarded to broadcasters but is not in commercial use, typically because it has been freed up in the transition from analog to digital broadcasting. Currently, there is a lot of white space in India that Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) could use to support the rollout of low-cost broadband services in the country's vast hinterland.
Predictably enough, the Indian service providers have expressed outrage at the prospect of an IT behemoth using free spectrum to provide Internet access at extremely competitive prices. According to local media reports, the Cellular Operators Association of India is planning to raise the issue with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). It is demanding the government carry out an auction of this spectrum, since it will be used for commercial purposes. Microsoft, in the meantime, is conducting white spaces trials that involve the DoT.
But Microsoft is not the only company to see potential in white spaces technology. An organization called Whitespace Alliance, which has been collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Tata Teleservices Ltd. , is also working on a pilot in Palghar district, in the state of Maharashtra.
Having spent heavily to acquire spectrum, operators are understandably upset about these schemes. Moreover, signals are believed to travel further over white space airwaves -- which generally sit within the 450-700MHz range -- than cellular spectrum, making them better suited to rural deployment.
Indeed, India's mobile operators have largely ignored the rural segment of the market. At the end of June, the penetration of services in rural communities had risen to just 49%, while that in urban areas stood at 149%, according to data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) .
But service providers are undoubtedly planning on turning their attention to the hinterland in future, as income levels rise and growth opportunities in the cities dry up.
If Microsoft is allowed to proceed with its plan, they may have to enter these areas much sooner than originally planned or risk missing out entirely.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading