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Yes, We CAN: Microsoft-Led Coalition Targets White Spaces for Rural Broadband

Aditya Kishore
1/4/2018
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Microsoft has pulled together a group of advocates to help roll out broadband to underserved (or not-at-all-served) rural areas in the US. It has launched a new coalition called Connect Americans Now (CAN) to lobby the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other policymakers to provide sufficient "white space" spectrum that can be used for broadband connectivity.

The founders of the CAN coalition are: Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT); ACT (The App Association); the National Rural Education Association; the Schools, Health and Library Broadband Coalition; the Wisconsin Economic Development Association; Alaska Communications; Axiom; the Mid-Atlantic Broadcasting Communities Corporation; the American Pain Relief Institute; HTS Ag; and others.

According to the software giant, 23.4 million rural Americans do not have access to broadband networks. That's because it is not financially viable for network operators to build networks in these sparsely populated areas. However, with the Internet becoming an increasingly important part of business and ordinary life, this is a huge challenge for the development of these areas.

Microsoft found this particularly affects students trying to work and get information online, businessmen trying to conduct ecommerce and the unemployed, who are looking for work.

The coalition is targeting white space spectrum: guard bands used between UHF analog TV channels. This capacity has increased as digital transmission allows for improved video compression, and there have been deployments of broadband using white spaces by some ISPs.

In fact, Microsoft has been working on this since July last year when it launched its Rural Airband Initiative, a $10 billion initiative aimed at bringing broadband to 2 million rural Americans by 2022. Originally aimed at the developing world, Microsoft has used the technology in Africa and the Philippines. But now it sees an important opportunity to use it in rural America. (See Microsoft Pushes White Spaces for Rural Broadband .)

In order to make this work, Microsoft needs legislative support that will ensure that sufficient white space is available in each market. And that's going to be challenge given that everyone wants more spectrum. The development of the ATSC 3.0 standard is encouraging broadcasters to simulcast with new technologies and enable new services. The recent repackaging of broadcast spectrum will also require new spectrum for stations and of course, providers and potential providers of wireless services are also keen on more spectrum.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) for example, has described Microsoft's attempts to access this spectrum as a "spectrum grab" and warns legislators not to give a "$540 billion company a handout."

It argues that 1,000 broadcasters have been shifted as a result of the repack, and many may be forced off the air. Microsoft's attempts to get hold of this spectrum could force even more to shut down, denying viewers "critical local news, emergency weather and community information."

Broadcasters are themselves interested in offering interactive, two-way services, one of the potential benefits of ATSC 3.0. So they are likely to aggressively resist any loss of spectrum.

But Microsoft argues that this particular spectrum is very useful for broadband connectivity. TV signals have four times the reach of WiFi. If you take all four directions into account, that's 16 times the reach. TV signals also pass through hills and buildings better and rural areas are less likely to have as many channels as big cities, so there's going to be more "unused" spectrum available. The NAB disputes this, saying that if Microsoft only wanted unused spectrum, it wouldn't be lobbying for it.

The two sides look well set for a battle over the course of 2018.

— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation

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