Broadcasters, advocacy groups and nonprofits weigh in on Microsoft's magical broadband

The good, the bad and the ugly parts of Redmond's white space internet

Analysis On Tuesday, Microsoft announced it will pay third-party ISPs in the US to offer wireless broadband on unused TV spectrum, or "white space."

As The Register's Kieren McCarthy argued, the financial logic behind this choice is questionable at best – and Microsoft hopes to take a share of revenue spoils. Advocacy groups and researchers are generally saying nice things about the Windows giant's Rural Broadband Initiative, but some point out it may not really solve the lack-of-decent-internet-access problem in rural America.

Over the next year, 12 pilot projects will be "up and running" in 12 states, we're told: Washington, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, New York, Virginia and Georgia.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents US telly outlets, didn't mince words.

"Microsoft's white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure," an NAB spokesperson told The Reg by email. "Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming."

The spokesperson added that "it's the height of arrogance for Microsoft" to "demand free, unlicensed spectrum" after "refusing to bid" on broadcast TV spectrum during a recent FCC auction, which was meant to redistribute low-band frequencies (around the 600MHz frequency range) that are useful for wireless broadband.

Responding to part of the NAB's criticism during a question at the presentation for the Rural Broadband Initiative on Tuesday, Microsoft president Brad Smith said he wanted the NAB and Microsoft "not just to hurl insults at each other" but instead "sit down and solve some practical problems" – in particular bringing internet to the millions of Americans who don't have it.

He admitted that it's taken time for Microsoft's efforts to scale, but "You don't create a PowerPoint slide showing the future and have a market with products the next week," he said.

He added that Microsoft is not asking for a lot of spectrum, especially compared to what has already been auctioned off.

'The right moment for this kind of infrastructure investment'

Harold Feld, the Senior VP at Public Knowledge, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group for promoting broadband access for all, says that the NAB has been arguing against using TV white space for broadband for years.

But "this is the right moment for this kind of infrastructure investment," he told us. President Trump and the Republican Party in general have been promoting better broadband access.

The problem is that telecom companies often expand service out in densely populated cities first and rural cities and towns are often not covered with broadband until much later on. The question is how to pay for it – "In some ways, this is free money," he says.

Tad Deriso is CEO of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, a nonprofit based in South Boston, Virginia, that builds communication infrastructure. His organization partnered with Microsoft and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission back in 2015 to bring broadband to 100 households in the state – in particular students' homes – by taking advantage of unused TV white space between 608-614MHz and 652-663MHz.

He told The Register that many families serviced are on free or reduced lunch programs, and can't afford to pay for broadband. The program offers free internet for households that only access websites whitelisted by school routers (so it's meant for educational content). There's a paid service if homes want to use the internet without restriction for personal use.

There are 16 tower sites (with 9 more planned to be up by the end of the year). The tower sites are connected to base stations and receivers on the side of homes – a cord runs through the wall to connect to a Wi‑Fi router. He says the farthest that signal still works with decent quality today is about 5 miles from the tower sites – you get about 2‑5 Mbps down (with no limit on upload speed).

The goal is to connect 1,000 households by the end of the year, he says.

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