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Microsoft to Partner in Bringing Rural Broadband to Life PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 17 July 2017 08:24


Prominent leaders in science, business, art and government convened 101 years ago to honor Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone and look to the future of long distance communications. That event, called “Voice Voyages,” was sponsored by The National Geographic Society and featured the unprecedented public demonstration of coast-to-coast telephone capability that would connect every community large and small across the nation.

A century later, a new generation of connectivity issues are arising at a critical time. Broadband connectivity is no longer simply a luxury for streaming YouTube videos on a tablet (as enjoyable as that may be). It has become a critical connection to a better education and living. New cloud services are making broadband a necessity to start and grow a small business and take advantage of advances in agriculture, telemedicine and education. In short, broadband has become a vital part of 21st century infrastructure.

Yet today 34 million Americans still lack broadband internet access, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a 25 Mbps connection. Of these, 23.4 million live in rural parts of our country. People who live in these rural communities increasingly are unable to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities enjoyed by their urban neighbors.

Yet despite this glaring disparity, real progress to close the rural broadband gap has plateaued in recent years. High costs, the absence of new and alternative technologies, and market and regulatory conditions have all hampered efforts to expand coverage. But this is changing, thanks to recent advancements in technology, newly adopted standards, business model innovations and a growing demand for broadened cloud services.

In 2010 the FCC adopted rules enabling the use of TV white spaces in the United States. It has taken years of additional work to put in place the building blocks needed for the use of this spectrum to scale in an affordable way. The industry has worked to perfect the hardware and software technology, develop industry-wide standards and innovate our way to a practical business model. These advances have now reached a critical threshold, however, and together with increasing demand for cloud services, the market is poised to accelerate if the right steps are taken.

The best approach for the nation is to rely on a mixture of technologies for rural communities. Specifically, TV white spaces will provide the best approach to reach the 80 percent of this underserved rural population that live in communities with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. Satellite coverage should be used for areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and fixed wireless and limited fiber to the home should be used for communities with a density greater than 200 people per square mile.

One of the big benefits of this new approach is a dramatic reduction in the cost of bringing broadband rates to rural communities. By relying on this mixture of technologies, the total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap falls into a range of $8 to $12 billion. This is roughly 80 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G.

Microsoft unveiled a new campaign to try to “eliminate” the gap in high-speed internet access in the country’s hardest-to-reach areas — an effort called the Rural Airband Initiative, which will set an ambitious target of bringing better broadband to two million Americans within the next five years.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant plans to start its efforts in 12 states, offering seed money — Microsoft wouldn’t specify the amount — to local telecom providers that are trying to improve internet access through means like “white spaces.”

From Microsoft’s point of view, this approach — aimed at delivering speedy wireless internet — is the best way to improve connectivity in parts of the country that broadband providers long have ignored, given the prohibitive costs of building and sustaining networks there. By Microsoft’s count, more than 23 million Americans in rural areas currently lack high-speed internet access, despite billions of dollars in federal investment.

Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative

Brad Smith at Microsoft noted, “At Microsoft, we’re prepared to invest our own resources to help serve as a catalyst for broader market adoption of this new model. We’re committed to three elements on a five-year basis:

  • Direct investments with partners. Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative will invest in partnerships with telecommunications companies with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in rural America by 2022. We and our partners will have at least 12 projects up and running in 12 states in the next 12 months. Our goal is not to enter the telecommunications business ourselves or even to profit directly from these projects. We will invest in the upfront capital projects needed to expand broadband coverage, seek a revenue share from operators to recoup our investment, and then use these revenue proceeds to invest in additional projects to expand coverage further. We’re confident that this approach is good for the country and even for our business. After all, if 23 million additional customers can access the internet at broadband speeds, every tech company in America will benefit.
  • Investment in digital skills training for people of all ages in these newly connected communities.  Working through Microsoft Philanthropies, the Rural Airband Initiative will help train people on the latest technology so they can use this new connectivity to improve education, health care and agriculture, as well as transform their businesses. We announced a new and vital partnership with the National 4-H Council to do precisely this, building on the 4-H’s capabilities and members across the country.
  • Microsoft will stimulate investment by others through technology licensing: The goal is to serve as a catalyst for market investments by others in order to reach additional rural communities. Even if they connect 2 million people through their own direct investments, that’s just a stepping stone towards the larger goal of serving 23.4 million individuals. So, they are launching a new technology program to share what they have learned with other companies. They will also help stimulate investment through royalty-free access to at least 39 patents and sample source code related to technology they have developed to better enable broadband connectivity through TV white spaces spectrum in rural areas.”

But the company emphasized that it is not looking to become a telecom provider — it’s only providing capital to local firms — and does not seek to profit from the endeavor. Through revenue-sharing agreements, Microsoft instead plans to invest any money it raises in additional projects in other states where internet access is lacking.

For one thing, these “white spaces” aren’t available in every market in the United States. Rather, Microsoft wants the Federal Communications Commission to reserve more of that spectrum for unlicensed use in the coming months. But the idea has been met with stiff opposition from broadcasters, which generally have to pay to obtain that spectrum from the U.S. government.

Nor are “white spaces” some panacea for the country’s broadband ills: Even Microsoft acknowledges in its announcement that other technologies, like internet delivered by satellite, are necessary to improve connectivity in the country’s most remote regions. At the moment, Microsoft has not announced any specific investments in that technology.

For now, the initial targets are 12 states: Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, a spokesman told TR. In Virginia, Microsoft previously announced a partnership with a local network to provide free broadband in two communities where 50 percent of students have no internet connectivity.


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