TV White Spaces Eyed as Ideal Bridge Over US Digital Divide
A new Microsoft proposal at the FCC appears to be gaining support from all the right places. But more importantly, it's widely being hailed as a viable method of quickly and cheaply bringing broadband connections to the rural US.
Specifically, Microsoft is urging the FCC to issue new rules around the use of fixed wireless technologies in TV White Space (TVWS) spectrum. The rules would, among other things, allow fixed wireless providers to build taller towers and crank up the power on their transmissions in order to reach more people with faster speeds.
"For a variety of reasons, including the conservative rules the Commission initially granted and the intervening broadcast incentive auction and re-pack, widespread use of TV white space spectrum has not materialized," wrote the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA), the US trade group that represents some of the thousands of small and midsized fixed wireless Internet providers all over the country, in a filing to the FCC.
But, WISPA said, Microsoft's proposed changes to the rules around commercial operations in TVWS spectrum could help change all that. "The rules proposed in the Petition offer real promise that deployment of fixed wireless networks on TV white space spectrum can develop into a prominent means of delivering broadband services to rural Americans," WISPA wrote.
But perhaps the most important filing on the topic comes not from the likes of WISPA or Microsoft but instead from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the trade group that represents the nation's TV broadcasters. NAB has long complained about wireless operations in TVWS because such operations can interfere with TV broadcasts in adjacent spectrum bands.
Now, though, NAB is mostly on board Microsoft's TVWS train. "Microsoft proposes five rule changes it states will support expansion of broadband service in rural communities. NAB believes the Commission should consider four of these proposed changes," NAB wrote to the FCC. NAB explained it doesn't support Microsoft's proposal to allow higher power operations on "first-adjacent channels" to broadcasters.
But hey, four out of five ain't bad. [Ed note: And don't be sad! Eat your heart out, Meat Loaf!]
Solutions for the divide
While the FCC hasn't yet indicated how it might vote on Microsoft's requested changes to operations in the TVWS band, there's a good chance the agency will approve them, given NAB's support and given the rules could ultimately help broadband providers deploy Internet services into rural areas. That's because TVWS spectrum generally sits in the 600MHz and 700MHz bands -- such low-band spectrum is ideal for covering large geographic areas (like rural areas in the US) due to its propagation characteristics. Importantly, providers like Rise Broadband have also proven that they can use TVWS spectrum to provide the FCC's minimum broadband Internet speed requirements of 25 Mbit/s down and 3 Mbit/s up.
Crossing the digital divide and providing Internet services to Americans in rural areas is, of course, a key goal of the FCC and legislators in general. Indeed, the FCC just this month announced the release of $166.8 million in additional broadband subsidies via its recent Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II auction. Although most of the companies in this particular round of funding are planning to use it to build fiber networks, there are a few that are planning to use fixed wireless technologies to deploy Internet services into rural areas. For example, Commnet of Nevada is getting around $23.7 million from the FCC's CAF II auction, and has said it will use the money to build fixed wireless services in spectrum bands including 600MHz, 700MHz and 3.5GHz CBRS.
And it's no surprise that Microsoft is pushing for new TVWS rules that would support fixed wireless Internet services. Microsoft got involved in TVWS in 2017 with its AirBand initiative, which essentially provides funding for TVWS providers and equipment suppliers, with the goal of creating a self-sustaining TVWS ecosystem. The company said the cost of customers' TVWS receivers already has dropped from $800 to $300.
Microsoft launched AirBand with the goal of connecting up to 2 million rural Americans to the Internet by 2022, but recently raised that goal to 3 million people. The company said it expects to have TVWS efforts up and running in 25 US states by December.
"We've learned that wireless technology can become the bridge that spans this broadband divide... Whether it be phone landlines, electricity, cable or broadband, wired technologies typically plateau at 70 percent penetration in the United States, before requiring decades of additional work and mountains of public money to close the remaining gap. For example, even after 25 years, electricity and cable TV hadn't climbed above 70 percent," wrote Microsoft's Brad Smith late last year. "In contrast, within 25 years the country achieved near-universal adoption of radio and color broadcast television, both of which obviously involved wireless technology. More recently, the pace of adoption for cellphones neared 100 percent in about 14 years and in just eight years for smartphones. Broadband adoption not only lags both of these technologies, but is slower than the adoption of radio, more than 70 years ago. This history of wired technology adoption doesn't bode well for laying fiber optic cable to the distant reaches of our nation."
In fact, Microsoft recently clashed with the FCC on the topic of the digital divide, arguing that the agency's rural Internet calculations are way off base. The FCC argues that only around 20 million Americans lack access to broadband Internet connections of at least 25Mbit/s, while Microsoft argues that the figure is more like 162 million.
IoT in TVWS
Finally, what's particularly interesting to note here is that Microsoft's support for TVWS operations doesn't end with a simple fixed wireless Internet connection to a home or office. The company is also looking at IoT applications in TVWS spectrum -- ones that could leverage the company's cloud and software offerings.
"To truly create a large-scale market for TV white spaces technologies, the technologies must support networking applications beyond rural broadband access such as narrowband and wideband Internet of Things (IoT) applications," Microsoft wrote in a TVWS brochure in December. "To help make this possible, we have entered into a partnership with Adaptrum to develop a baseband chip based on the IEEE 802.11af standard that will power TV white spaces connectivity for consumer and network devices. As part of the Microsoft FarmBeats project, we have also developed a narrowband IoT radio based on the LoRaWAN standard that can use TV white spaces spectrum for a wide range of agricultural sensors. These narrowband IoT TV white spaces radios can be used in many other industries, including oil and natural gas, mining, and natural resource management."
Moreover, Microsoft's IoT in TVWS ambitions aren't confined to just the US market. As one publication recently noted, Microsoft is now looking to expand FarmBeats to Brazil in addition to the US, India, New Zealand and Kenya.