What’s the take on Microsoft’s proposal to bring broadband to rural areas?

I wrote about the Microsoft proposal to bring broadband to rural areas when it first came out. I had some reservations – many based on satellite being the solution for the last mile. I think that leaves that last mile falling farther and farther down the digital divide. I’ve seen a few other takes on Microsoft’s plan; others have reservations too.

Susan Crawford (in Wired) points out that Microsoft is really looking at broadband for the Internet of Things…

Here’s what’s really going on: Microsoft is aiming to be the soup-to-nuts provider of Internet of Things devices, software, and consulting services to zillions of local and national governments around the world. Need to use energy more efficiently, manage your traffic lights, target preventative maintenance, and optimize your public transport—but you’re a local government with limited resources and competence? Call Microsoft. …

Now let’s get behind those laudatory headlines in the Times and Post. Microsoft doesn’t want to have to rely on existing mobile data carriers to execute those plans. Why? Because the carriers will want a pound of flesh—a percentage—in exchange for shipping data generated by Microsoft devices from Point A to Point B. These costs can become very substantial over zillions of devices in zillions of cities. The carriers have power because, in many places, they are the only ones allowed to use airwave frequencies—spectrum—under licenses from local governments for which they have paid hundreds of millions of dollars. To eliminate that bottleneck, it will be good to have unlicensed spectrum available everywhere, and cheap chipsets and devices available that can opportunistically take advantage of that spectrum. …

And hustled is what we will be if we believe that Microsoft’s plans, by themselves, will fix America’s desperate internet access problem in rural areas. You see, while using white spaces will certainly be better than nothing in rural locations, those guard bands simply aren’t wide enough to allow for genuine, world-class internet data transmission to human beings in living rooms. Not possible. Not enough bandwidth. True, where commercial mobile radio (like AT&T and Verizon) isn’t available at all, white spaces will definitely help. You could use it for Internet of Things applications that are very very useful, as in advanced agriculture—don’t need to send much data to do that. But you would never use a white spaces transmission service alone if you didn’t have to. You’d end up with maybe a handful of Mbps or even less—hundreds of times less than what people with fiber would be getting. White spaces will definitely be another arrow in the quiver used by local fixed wireless operations, but they are no kind of substitute for actual great consumer internet access in rural areas.

From a discussion with Harold Feld on Community Broadband Network’s Podcast

And again, it’s important to recognize that TV White Space isn’t so much a technology as a bunch of frequencies we’re opening up so that people can develop new technologies. Right now, and again, it’s important to keep in mind there’s a difference between speeds you get in the laboratory, versus speeds that you can actually get in the real world. Right now, I think what they’re talking about is putting out networks that would operate at 45 megabits per second, symmetrical both ways, which, in a lot of rural areas, is much better than what you now. Even for a lot of folks in urban areas, if you do it cheaply and affordably, that’s better than the options that are available at much higher prices from the cable companies. The problem is wireless is very complicated, and we’re talking about devices that are operating at comparatively very low power. Television stations operate at 50,000 watts. Your TV White Space device is operating at one watt for the fixed devices, even less than that in microwatts for the more mobile devices when those come out. So, the other thing that people have to keep in mind is your speed or your broadband network isn’t just about the wireless part, it also then depends a lot on the back haul, what’s available. If you’re using wireless to bring it back to some place where it will land on fiber for back haul, then every hop cost to you moves from one tower to another, costs you more speed. So, we’re probably talking initially things that are more in the range of 10 megabits per second down with potentially the same or slightly less up. So, initially, this is going to be good for people who don’t really have anything, and it will give them stuff that’s useful, but not up to where it needs to be. Now, again, the technology’s going to keep getting better as it moves along, and the Microsoft folks have said, “We’re depending on a bunch of other inputs; we’re depending on the FCC doing things to make it possible to use the spectrum more effectively; we’re depending on finding ways to do things like getting fiber out, not in the communities to serve the communities, at least close enough that we can use it as back haul for the networks that are set up with these TV White Space devices.” So, everybody should keep in mind — Listeners should keep in mind that we’re at the beginning here. In rural areas, you have a lot of open TV White Spaces, because you have a lot of unused channels. That gives you a lot of capacity so you can get better speed on the wireless side, but that’s offset by having, in a lot of places, still needing to use copper, or some kind of wireless for you back haul. So, that drops the parent speed. I would say look for this to be more like eight to ten megabits locally, at least in the first generation deployments.

Craig Settle via Daily Yonder points out that local communities must have some ownership …

What’s really at issue here is that if communities are not holding the driving wheel on broadband projects and they don’t own or at least rent the vehicle, they are ultimately a passenger in someone else’s ride. At some point, the needs of the network owner could trump the needs of the community.

Odasz recalls that, “we have not seen Microsoft do any meaningful outreach to rural America as in terms of meeting the particular web-based challenges that these communities have. Microsoft’s TVWS strategy relies heavily on incumbents and politicians, which historically have fallen short on resolving rural broadband needs.”

Odasz believes that the private sector is all in favor of training that could lead to jobs such as programming or working in a data center. However, they fall short when teaching displaced workers in manufacturing or mining how to become e-commerce entrepreneurs, or how to use broadband to improve in their current blue-collar or professional Jobs. The politics of communication regulation have led politicians to support “incumbents” – the legacy telephone companies – rather than new approaches. Programs to help constituents defray the cost of broadband can be hit or miss.

Similar to Google’s entry into broadband, the Microsoft TVWS announcement is good news for getting infrastructure into more places, particularly within rural communities. The jury is still out has to how much this new connectivity will improve local economies, education, and healthcare for those in the communities who need broadband most.

This entry was posted in Research, 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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