A year ago, Microsoft announced its Rural Airband initiative, pledging to bring broadband to 2 million rural residents in the U.S. by 2022 through unused TV white spaces. Today, Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a phone interview with VentureBeat that the project is running ahead of schedule and the company now expects to deliver broadband to 3 million people by 2022.
“That confidence is based not just on the agreements we’ve been able to negotiate, but also on the work that we really invested in to build out what will become legally a robust TV white spaces ecosystem,” Smith told VentureBeat.
Over the past year, Microsoft has negotiated agreements with 13 telecommunications companies in 13 states to bring broadband to their region over the next several years. Microsoft provides some of the necessary upfront capital to help these providers expand broadband coverage, striking a revenue-share agreement with the providers and reinvesting proceeds back into the Airband project.
The company expects to deliver broadband to 1 million people through its initial 13 projects alone. Over the coming years, the initiative will expand to 12 new states, including Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and California.
The TV white spaces spectrum is what’s not being used by TV broadcasters in the 600 MHz frequency range capable of delivering wireless signals. Microsoft believes that repurposing TV white spaces is the most cost-effective approach to delivering broadband to areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.
When Microsoft first announced its Airband initiative a year ago, it faced pushback from broadcasters. Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said at the time that “policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming.”
Then there’s the question of whether a large company like Microsoft should be playing such a major role in deciding who gets access to rural broadband in the first place. Microsoft’s argument is that as a private business it’s able to give telecom providers the investments needed to get started more quickly than the government can.
Packerland Broadband, operating in Michigan and Wisconsin’s Upper Peninsula, was one of the first local telecommunications companies Microsoft negotiated an agreement with. Cory Heigl, Packerland’s vice president and general manager, told VentureBeat in a phone interview that he contacted Microsoft after reading the white paper the company published on TV white spaces technology two summers ago.
Heigl said that while Packerland’s traditional service areas have been “denser parts of smaller towns,” they haven’t been able to reach customers who are a couple miles or more outside those towns.
“The frequency range that is commonly referred to as TV white spaces propagates through foliage pretty well — and here in the upper Midwest in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there’s a lot more forest than there is farmland, so we had to try to find technologies that would get through the leaves and the trees,” Heigl told VentureBeat. “That [TV white spaces technology] sounded like a tool we needed to deliver broadband to these households.”
Over the past year, Packerland has been experimenting to find the right manufacturers for the various equipment needed to deliver internet to households using the TV white spaces spectrum. Heigl said that Packerland first has to secure access to space on local cell towers and place an antenna on those towers, as well as placing gear at the bottom of the tower that will broadcast signals to a consumer’s whitespace receiver. On the roof of the consumer’s house, Packerland has to mount a radio about the size of the shoebox and an attached antenna and run a Cat 5 or ethernet cable inside to connect it to the in-home network.
Heigl said that over the past year Packerland has been able to conduct beta deployments and has moved a “handful” of customers from beta to commercial. He added that Microsoft has been helpful in building a community of local telecommunications companies like Packerland and in attracting those who manufacturer the equipment needed to deploy broadband through TV white spaces. This reassures manufacturers that they will have enough buyers to bring the price of the equipment down, making it more affordable for small companies like Packerland to deploy.
Smith told VentureBeat that over the past year the Airband initiative has been able to get the cost of the network connectivity device that goes on a consumer’s roof from $800 down to $300 for at least one provider. But he said that the goal is to get the cost of it down below $100.
“At that point, a telecommunications company can simply include the device to a user as part of a subscription, and we don’t need to pay for it separately,” Smith said.
In order for prices to drop that low, Smith believes the government needs to get involved — specifically, to allocate more spending to developing wireless technologies, instead of relying on costly fixed fiber optic cable. That’s something Microsoft will be advocating for over the coming year.
Microsoft is also continuing to push the FCC to ensure that three channels below 700 MHz are available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional channels available in smaller and rural markets.
The FCC has said that 19 million people who live in rural communities in the U.S. currently lack access to broadband, but Smith said Microsoft believes this number is actually higher. He explained that in some of the places Microsoft has visited over the past year — citing Ferry County, Washington as an example — many of the people the company spoke with didn’t have access to broadband, even though the FCC claimed the area was sufficiently served.