Microsoft positioning to spread broadband to rural areas. I have some questions

Microsoft unveiled its plan for bringing broadband to rural areas by July 4, 2022. It involves TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage. There’s a lot of like; there’s a lot to question. So borrowing from their report and other info I could find (noted when appropriate) I’m going to outline the questions I had about their plan.

How are they going to do it?

Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology.

One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places.

TV white spaces2 is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.

Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this technology, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects worldwide that have served 185,000 users.

But TV white spaces alone will not provide the complete solution. Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile. This mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.

How are they defining broadband?

Not once in their report did I read a definition of broadband. So by default, I’m going to assume they are using the FCC definition: 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload (25/3). I wonder if the goal will change as the FCC definition of broadband increases. Their stated goal implies that it will…

The time is right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious, but achievable goal: to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years—by July 4, 2022— through a new Rural Broadband Strategy.

They allude to 4G a lot in the report. I think it’s worth noting that in urban areas, providers are talking up 5G. If we’re looking at parity, I might be looking at 5G in rural areas too. That being said, I recognize that the 5G standard isn’t yet set but the expected roadblocks would require early investigation.

Will the technologies they suggest meet those goals?

I’ve had to more away from the report to answer this – since again they don’t go into speeds.

I’ve written about satellite a lot – they are now claiming speeds of 25/3. Folks from the front-lines have certainly reported that satellite doesn’t work well for them. (Troubles with telehealth and costs.) And there doesn’t seem to be much room for increasing upload speeds, which means the 20 percent relying on satellite will be no better off.

Broadcasting & Cable had some info on the expectations of white space ability – but based on Microsoft’s claims…

Smith showed several prototype receivers, some of which Microsoft has used in field trials in 20 global locations ranging from Kenya to Taiwan to Washington state. The devices, built by Adaptrum, 6Harmonics and Aviacomm, are priced at under $800 now, and he said the prices would fall to $200 or less. They will be able to carry data at speeds up to 400 Megabits per second, he said, with initial models now operating at 25 Mbps and 40 Mbps. He said that Microsoft has run about 20 projects reaching 185,000 users—insisting that “this technology is ready to take off.”

Telecompetitor wrote (in 2015) about increase to white space speeds based on new standards (802.22 to 802.22b). This may be superfluous since Microsoft’s paper talks only about 802.22 but I found it interesting…

TV white spaces broadband wireless technology is on track to see a doubling in the speeds it can support, now that the IEEE has approved the 802.22b standard.

The new version of the point-to-multipoint standard can support speeds of 50 Mbps or more, said Apurva N. Mody, chairman of the IEEE 802.22 standard working group, in an email exchange with Telecompetitor.  In comparison, top speeds were 22-29 Mbps for the previous generation of the technology based on the 802.22 standard.

Additionally the number of users the technology can support will increase from 512 to 8,192 users, Mody said. While 8,192 users might sound like overkill, that capability could be important for machine-to-machine and Internet of Things communications.

Why is Microsoft doing this?

Our goal is not to profit directly from these projects, although we of course recognize that expanded broadband coverage will bring new commercial opportunities for every company in the tech sector that provides cloud services, including our own. We will rely on a business model focused on investing in the upfront capital projects needed to expand broadband coverage, and then seek a revenue share from operators to recoup our investment. We will use these revenue proceeds to invest in additional projects to expand coverage further over the next five years.

I wish I had a better feel for what revenue share meant – especially with Net Neutrality in question. But regardless – Google and Facebook have both jumped into the broadband provider business. (In fact Microsoft and Facebook built a cable from Easter US to Spain last year.) I think the connection to selling more ads was a more obvious payoff for them but it set a precedent and Microsoft cloud computing business would gain new customers with ubiquitous broadband.

Microsoft is starting with 12 states. Minnesota is not one of them but our neighbors are (North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin). It will be interesting to see how this works.

This entry was posted in MN, Rural, Vendors, Wireless by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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