Microsoft Goes on TV White Spaces Offensive in Name of Rural Broadband

Microsoft proposes to expand broadband access to rural communities using a combination of TV white spaces (the unlicensed frequencies between television channels) fixed wireless and satellite. “This coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared to the cost of using fiber cables alone and by approximately 50 percent compared to the cost of current fixed wireless technology,” the company says in a white paper released Tuesday. Using a mix of technologies, the cost to close the broadband gap would be between $8 and $12 billion, Microsoft estimates.

Microsoft supports the Commission’s proposal to preserve one UHF “white space” channel in each market now that TV broadcasters are transitioning into the channel repack post-auction, and urged the FCC to do this immediately, Inside Towers reported. NAB opposes this, saying not all the television stations that need to move to a new channel can be accommodated in the repack now and using white spaces would worsen that situation.

“We’re not a telecom and don’t want to be one. We’re not a broadcaster either and don’t want to be one,” said Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith as he laid out the tech company’s vision at the Media Institute in Washington, D.C. He stressed that 34 million Americans lack access to a broadband connection. Using public-private partnerships, Microsoft aims to close the gap within five years, with help from the FCC and Congress.

The plan “starts with a base station and an antenna on a tower,” acting as fiber backhaul, said Smith. He held several TV white spaces devices being used in 20 trials globally now as part of its rural airband initiative. The company is directly investing with telecoms in 12 states in 12 months to get things rolling, according to Smith. “Our goal is not to make a profit,” he said, explaining the telecoms would operate the networks and Microsoft would seek revenue sharing to recoup its costs. In turn, those would be used to expand coverage with more partners.

While telecoms are focused on network densification for 5G, Smith said that scheme doesn’t work well for long distances and TV white spaces signals do.

NAB reiterated it opposes the plan. “It’s the height of arrogance for Microsoft — a $540 billion company — to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction. Microsoft’s white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure,” stated NAB EVP Communications Dennis Wharton, citing an article from recode. “Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming.”

July 12, 2017      

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