Tag Archives: white space

Microsoft’s rural broadband gamble might have millions of winners

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The rural/urban broadband divide is deep, according to a report by Microsoft. For people living and working in rural areas, it’s confirmation of what they already know, but it’s valuable nonetheless. Microsoft’s critique of the available data – and the 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed standard – is a useful corporate counterweight to the claims made by AT&T and Frontier, which are the telcos receiving the lion’s share of federal broadband subsidies for 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up service in rural California.

The report highlights the annual coverage data submitted to the Federal Communications Commission by Internet service providers. The latest numbers show that 25 million people in the U.S. lack access to what Microsoft calls “a broadband-speed connection to the internet”, i.e. 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. Of those, 19 million people live in rural communities – 31% of the U.S. rural population.

California has 1.2 million unserved rural residents, representing 54% of our rural population, according to Microsoft.

But the FCC data probably overstates broadband availability, Microsoft says…

Data that Microsoft collects as part of our ongoing work to improve the performance and security of our software and services for customers provides additional evidence that the FCC overestimates broadband usage in the United States. While the FCC reports that 92 percent of Americans have access to broadband, our data indicates that the number of people who connect to the internet at 25 Mbps is probably closer to 49 percent. Largely rural states including West Virginia, Alaska, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Mississippi that rank among the lowest for broadband access according to the FCC are also among the lowest in our data.

Microsoft’s solution is its “Airband Initiative” which, the company says, is aimed at “harnessing unassigned broadcast spectrum known as TV white spaces to bring broadband connectivity to 2 million unserved rural Americans”.

That spectrum is in the 700 MHz range, which is better able to propagate over rural distances and cut through foliage and other obstructions, but also carries less data than more finicky higher frequency bands. That’s the reality of wireless engineering trade offs: there are no magic solutions, only different – and valuable – tools in the kit.

So far, Microsoft has invested in eight companies – including Cal.net in California – that plan to eventually reach about 1.1 million unserved people via fixed wireless service. Microsoft is not releasing actual subscriber or availability data, or disclosing how much it’s investing, though.

The initiative is not philanthropy on Microsoft’s part (nor should it be). The investments might or might not generate a direct return, but the “royalty-free access to…patents and sample source code related to TV white spaces technology” that Microsoft is also contributing could be significant. Using white spaces without interfering with TV broadcasts requires a central frequency coordinator, such as Microsoft or Google, another contender for that role.

The more rural households that Microsoft’s partners serve, then the greater the adoption of Microsoft’s core technology and the better the chance it has of cornering the top spot in that market. If that strategy works, everyone wins. If it doesn’t, Microsoft loses.

Just so.

Microsoft discovers Google’s business model in spectral gaps

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Me too.

Microsoft’s TV white space broadband initiative is many things – a worthy effort to expand Internet access, a way of squeezing more useable bandwidth out of finite radio spectrum, a call to action for rural economic development and, as willingly acknowledged, a business opportunity.

It is also a foray into the market economics of free software. White space is the gaps between active television channels, which vary according to where you are in relation to whatever TV stations might be around. The proposed solution to this spectrum management problem is active management via databases run by private companies. Like Microsoft.

Or like Google. Which opened up its database to all comers four years ago. Microsoft’s answer, which is wrapped in a well articulated but completely ordinary white paper about rural broadband access, is to offer up its intellectual property in a similar manner…

Our Rural Airband Technology Program will make our U.S. patents available under a royalty-free license to all comers, including to our competitors, for any work they undertake to stimulate broadband access through TV white spaces. These patents help tackle common problems associated with TV white spaces in a variety of ways…

Microsoft’s database-driven TV white spaces technology has continuously been improved through the use of machine learning that populates, maintains, and improves the content of the database, and cloud-based analytics to respond to database queries that, for example, leverages prior spectrum assignments for particular devices.

Google went from a Silicon Valley garage start up to being (at times) the world’s most valuable company by amassing vast quantities of data, giving away software that can make efficient use of it and then making gigabucks as the resulting traffic passed through – and made detours into – its servers.

In that context, its open access white space venture was nothing remarkable. And from that perspective, neither is Microsoft’s. Except that, well, it’s Microsoft. Welcome to club.

Google’s free white space database could preempt paid competition and boost market

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Room for broadband in the television space.

White space spectrum is finally moving out of the lab and toward commercial deployments. Google has opened up its database of usable U.S. white space frequencies to all comers, at no charge. The technology is far from standardised yet, but with free access to the data necessary to make it work, that process can get started.

The idea behind white space spectrum is that frequencies allocated for broadcast television service are not fully used. High power, mega-watt television channel assignments are staggered across different markets, to prevent interference. But a low powered broadband access point in Sacramento isn’t going to bother a television station in San Francisco.

Since the available TV band frequencies vary from place to place, even within a designated market, systems and devices that rely on white space spectrum need a way to figure out what’s available at any given location. The FCC gave the blessing to several companies to provide that information to manufacturers and operators, but Google might have preempted the market by being the first to step out with a fully accessible product and give it away for free.

Developers can sign up with Google and get the APIs that will link their hardware to the database. There are two versions – one for testing and the other to go live.

One vendor is already using the database in a trial deployment at West Virginia University, and GE is testing it for its machine-to-machine communications initiative, according to a blog post by Alan Norman, the overall lead for Google’s broadband access strategy.

Google’s database is a major white space milestone. Now that there’s a legal way for manufacturers and service providers to use the spectrum, at least in the U.S., the regulatory wrangling can give way to market-based competition and standards setting. Game on.