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Microsoft's Rural Broadband Plans Chugging Along

Microsoft President Brad Smith recently described the company's progress with its plan to improve broadband Internet access in underserved and rural areas of the United States.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative (formerly called the "Rural Airband Initiative") involves Microsoft's efforts to fund Internet service providers in rural areas of the United States to enable broadband Internet connections. Microsoft also is working to bring down the costs of radios to enable these broadband connections.

Microsoft has also promised to donate some of its patents to foster the use of the so-called "white space" spectrum for the purpose. The white space spectrum is a portion of the 600-MHz TV airwaves that Microsoft wants to leverage for its rural broadband scheme.

The company also has lobbied to use the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) Universal Service Fund, which collects a portion of telecom revenues for rural service connections, to fund these rural broadband efforts. In a talk on Tuesday, Smith suggested that the FCC needed clearer rules on the matter.

Microsoft's lobbying efforts to use the white space spectrum for rural broadband access has met some industry resistance by older and more entrenched interests that tap the public airwaves. The white space portion of the spectrum once was used to separate TV broadcasts, but it isn't being used now. However, Microsoft's proposal has received attacks by organizations like the National Association of Broadcasters organization, which has contended that the diversion of white space spectrum to rural broadband access would interfere with TV broadcasts.

Such spats may be what Smith is referring to in saying that the FCC needs clearer rules.

Smith said that Microsoft has made good progress with its rural broadband initiative so far, but more needs to get done. Consequently, the company has increased the goal it set last year for rural broadband expansion.

"Last year we said we'd reach 2 million [people] by 2022, but now we're saying we'll reach 3 million," Smith said, referring to Microsoft's rural broadband efforts.

The 3 million rural broadband goal is targeted for July 4, 2022. In addition, Microsoft expects its rural broadband project will expand to "25 states served by this time next year," according to an announcement. The new states expected to join Microsoft's initiative include "California, Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia."

Microsoft's announcements cited FCC figures that about 25 million Americans don't have broadband access, and of that number, 19 million live in rural areas. However, Smith said that "we don't believe anyone has accurate data on measuring who has broadband and who does not."

Smith said that the public sector needs to target some of its money for wireless technology, and that Microsoft is not proposing that any of this money should flow to Microsoft. He added that the key at this stage is to lower the hardware costs for enabling rural broadband access.

"It's about volume and scale," Smith said. "If we can scale the adoption of these devices [for rural broadband access] then costs will fall. Once we get this going, then we believe the market can take off on its own."

While Microsoft may not directly profit from its rural broadband initiative, there's an indirect benefit. Rural broadband expansion will benefit "every company in the tech sector that provides cloud services, including our own," a Microsoft whitepaper had earlier explained (PDF).

During the talk, Microsoft announced that Declaration Networks and Microsoft have partnered to bring broadband to homes in Ferry County, Wash. Microsoft had earlier partnered with Declaration Networks to serve rural Maryland and Virginia areas using white spaces and other parts of the wireless spectrum. Another ISP featured during the talk was Packerland Broadband, which serves parts of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Microsoft also has an Airband Grant Fund that's providing funding more broadly than just in the United States. For instance, Microsoft announced eight grantees in August, with three located in Africa and one in Asia, in addition to four U.S. grantees.

Last month, Microsoft announced a partnership with Native Network to deliver broadband Internet access to about 73,500 people in rural Montana and Washington. Microsoft also partnered with Agile Networks to reach 110,000 underserved people in rural Ohio. Microsoft released an Airband grant to CvWireless to "connect 300 households in Essex County, New York, as well as a grant to Skylark Wireless to support 10,000 residents and businesses in Mingo County, W.Va.

Microsoft also earlier announced a strategic partnership with Radwin, a provider of broadband wireless solutions, including fixed wireless radios and power solutions. The two companies were collaborating on using the TV white space spectrum for rural broadband access in the rural United States and worldwide. Microsoft also partnered with Redline Communications, a designer and maker of wide-area wireless networking products.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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