Monday, July 10, 2017

Microsoft dusts off TV white spaces wireless tech with "Rural Airband Initiative"

Microsoft proposing $10B program to bring broadband internet to rural America | The Seattle Times: Microsoft is set to propose a $10 billion program to bring broadband internet to the rural U.S., an economic-development program aimed at a core constituency of the Trump administration. The plan, which calls for corporate and government cash, relies on nascent television “white-space” technology, which sends internet data over unused broadcast frequencies set aside for television channels.In an event scheduled for Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Microsoft is to propose using the technology it helped develop as a cornerstone of an effort to connect the 23.4 million Americans in rural areas who lack high-speed internet access.
Ten years ago, Microsoft along with Dell, EarthLink, Google, HP, Intel, and Philips Electronics formed the White Spaces Coalition and submitted a prototype wireless Internet protocol-based telecom device to be tested by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The White Spaces Coalition hoped have the device approved for use when analog TV broadcasts ceased in February 2009 in favor of digital transmission, using unused portions of the television broadcast spectrum, 2MHz to 698MHz. The technology never came into widespread use in the decade that followed. According to this story in the Seattle Times, Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative seeks to deploy the technology with telecommunications industry partners in a dozen states by 2018.
 
TV white spaces technology isn't being held out as a panacea for the many neighborhoods redlined by incumbent landline telephone and cable companies that are found immediately adjacent to neighborhoods that are served by them. It's specifically targeted to areas with between two and 200 people per square mile, according to a Microsoft blog post. Fixed terrestrial wireless and "limited" fiber to the premise should be deployed in communities with a density greater than 200 people per square mile, according to the post, and satellite should be used to provide service in very sparsely populated areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile. Currently, however, satellite is found in much more populated areas that lack landline infrastructure and provides a far inferior level of service than can be provided by landline infrastructure.

Microsoft's TV white spaces plan faces a number of obstacles mentioned in this New York Times story. They include the high cost of the devices to deliver it, longstanding opposition from the TV broadcast industry concerned about possible interference and limited bandwidth inherent in any advanced telecom technology based on spectrum. There's a larger downside as well: looking to technologies that have limited and unproven track records for delivering advanced, Internet protocol-based telecommunications. It's happened before with Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL), which was first touted in the mid-2000s (around the same time as TV white spaces), G-Fast (souped up DSL) and more recently, AT&T's experimental AirGig technology. None have proven to be lower cost replacements offering the same bandwidth capacity and reliability that fiber to the premise (FTTP) technology provides.

Coming on the heels of a Deloitte white paper declaring building out fiber a U.S. national infrastructure imperative, Microsoft's proposal underscores the poor public policy and planning that brought the nation to where it is today with widespread telecommunications infrastructure deficiencies and disparities. TV white spaces might have made sense as a planned transitional technology on the road to universal FTTP. That it's being hauled back out 10 years after it debuted reflects a desperate, on the cheap strategy borne out of the landline infrastructure deficiencies and disparities rather than a transitional strategy.

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