rural broadband tv white spaces

Another bid to close the rural digital divide

While the Federal Communications Commission opened up unlicensed, low-frequency bands in the radio-frequency spectrum for public use in 2010, efforts are just getting underway to explore opportunities to offer low-cost Wi-Fi that takes advantage of this spectrum to reach underserved communities.  On June 10, Microsoft announced one of the plans to connect 2 million people to broadband in rural America by 2022 using TV white spaces.

White spaces refer to the unused spectrum in the UHF television bands that could be used to reach rural communities underserved by current broadband plans. Most communities use only a handful of the 35 UHF channels still reserved for television in the United States.

Microsoft's Rural Airband Initiative will rely on middle- and last-mile broadband providers to connect communities to Super Wi-Fi and provide training and support for 12 projects in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Microsoft will also stimulate more investment in the space with royalty-free access to at least 39 patents and sample source code to develop better TV white space technology.

The first TV white space project is a collaboration between Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation and Microsoft to bring broadband access to the homes of thousands of students in Charlotte and Halifax counties in southern Virginia.

A non-profit, independent organization, MBC is leveraging the experience it gained creating fiber networks across 26 counties through the Middle Mile Expansion for Eastern Virginia. The project, which was funded by a  $10 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, built  170 miles of new fiber to complement MBC's existing network in southeastern Virginia, providing backbone speeds of up to 100 gigabit/sec. The Middle Mile Expansion, which was completed in 2013, allowed schools to access upgraded, higher capacity services at affordable rates.

With support from local internet service provider B2X Online for the last mile connection, MBC is now working to reach more than 3,000 students in 1,000 homes by the end of 2017.

“We have the ability to leverage what has already been built from the BTOP program to all of the schools, take that infrastructure and add on additional activity to support the TV white space spectrum project,” MBC President and CEO Tad Deriso told GCN.   

Using TV white space equipment from Adaptrum, students will be able to tap into free broadband for their homework using technology placed on cell towers and client radios installed in at individual homes.

“We decided to bring connectivity from schools to homes," Deriso said, but now the local ISP is "trying the service for other customers who don’t have kids in school and are willing to pay for it."

The exact locations for Microsoft’s other TV white space pilots have not been disclosed, but they are expected to focus on four specific sectors: small businesses, improving healthcare, education and agriculture.

Microsoft initially tested TV white space technology near its headquarters in Seattle. In March 2015 Mayor Ed Murray announced a pilot project for a 74-acre urban campus in the city called Seattle Center.

The city and Microsoft both decided not to move beyond the pilot stage, however.

“Through various trials and pilots, including one in Seattle, Microsoft and our partners have validated that TV white spaces is a viable technology and is particularly well-suited for bringing broadband to remote areas,” a Microsoft spokesperson said. “We’ve completed the pilot at Seattle Center and our focus now is on helping to eliminate the rural broadband gap with 12 projects in rural areas around the country over the next 12 months.”

Microsoft’s efforts to increase broadband access are only the latest efforts by major technology companies to cross the digital divide.  In 2013, Comcast invested heavily in low-cost broadband option called Internet Essentials, and Sprint and Clearwire launched a $10 a month broadband option through Freedom Pop.

Not everyone considers these initiatives a net positive.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute, sees these tech companies making investments in broadband access as a way to get customers to spend more on internet-enabled products and activities.

“It is in their best interest to create public internet access [that allows people] … to be connected to the internet inexpensively all of the time because they are moving their products to the cloud,” Calabrese said.

Microsoft’s TV white space announcement also comes just under four months after the FCC conducted an incentive auction to sell off spectrum in the 600 MHz band for flexible use. In April, the FCC began a 39-month process to transition some TV stations to new channel assignments.

“After the incentive auction, all of the channels will be operating below channel 37, which means that there will be fewer TV white space channels,” Calabrese said.  “It took five years after Congress passed the incentive auction for the FCC to process it, but in the meantime, there will be uncertainty about how much white space will be available.”

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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