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If at first you don't succeed, you're Microsoft pushing its magical white space broadband

This time, Brad, this time

Analysis As you enter the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, you step back in time. Abraham Lincoln stayed here just prior to his inauguration; Martin Luther King made the final edits to his most famous speech in its lobby; and Alexander Graham Bell used as it as the venue to demonstrate a coast-to-coast telephone call.

On Tuesday, Microsoft's president Brad Smith also took us back in time: to a period when Microsoft decided that the answer to rural internet access in the US was to use the "white space" in between TV channels for data transfer.

It was 2007 and Microsoft had created a coalition with other internet heavyweights to argue for the use of white space. It had developed a device that it sent to America's comms watchdog, the FCC, to blow apart the myth that any attempt to use this space would cause interference with TV broadcasts and radio mics. This was the future.

Unfortunately, the device didn't work: it couldn't detect unused TV spectrum and it did in fact interfere with other devices. Microsoft's coalition was hit with determined opposition from America's four largest television networks, which joined local TV stations and even Dolly Parton in opposing the idea.

But undeterred, Microsoft pushed forward, raving about what could be "Wi‑Fi on steroids" – even though the Wi‑Fi Alliance warned that the technology was nothing like Wi‑Fi and it would sue Microsoft if it attempted to use the brand name.


But Microsoft pushed on, and after years of heavy lobbying persuaded the FCC to pass rules allowing for access to white space in order to prove its potential. There was even a deployment in the wild – and we're not talking about the one that failed yet again at a conference in Las Vegas and disrupted local TV stations. Nor the one that knocked out CNBC's radio mics in Florida.

Yes, it was a long struggle, but 2012 was the Year of White Space. A new FCC database went live in January helping to find unused spectrum and so avoid that pesky interference with TV stations. New trials meant that no one in rural areas would have to go without broadband ever again.

The National Association of Broadcasters even withdrew its appeal against the FCC's decision to allow white space usage in the first place. It had taken a long while and a lot of work, but finally "White‑Fi" was a go. And just to prove it, Microsoft covered its campus with one of these new networks and even went to Africa to show how great it was (nothing to do with Africa's uncluttered spectrum, of course).


OK, so 2012 didn't happen. But the very next year, 2013, Microsoft was displaying this revolutionary new technology at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. Free internet access. Amazing.

OK, so 2013 didn't really happen either. But that didn't stop 'em: Microsoft pushed yet more trials in Ireland and Singapore. Its databases covered more and more areas of the US and the UK. Nothing was going to stop this technology now. Here it comes...

Just one problem: the companies that actually control the spectrum bands that Microsoft et al want to use aren't too keen on them having access, leaving them fighting for constantly changing spectrum scraps.

Oh – and there's the fact that it costs about $1,000 in equipment to connect up a household to this revolutionary new technology. Imagine if you went to an ISP to get internet access for your new apartment and they told you installation costs were $1,000. Would you go for it?

We'll be honest, we gave up on Microsoft and its White Space white elephant at this point. But Microsoft didn't.

Three years later, it's 2016, and the Beast of Redmond's determination to draw parallels with Wi‑Fi – even though the technologies are completely different – finally pays off. Microsoft through sheer force of will gets the 802.11af standard recognized. White‑Fi or Super Wi‑Fi is here and it's official!

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