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Microsoft: Use local template for rural internet across U.S.

South Boston News / July 17, 2017
Microsoft is hoping to take its Halifax-Charlotte broadband initiative national with a plan to connect 2 million Americans to high-speed internet, building on that experience to fully close the digital divide for nearly 24 million rural residents within five years.

Microsoft and Mid-Atlantic Broadband Corporation (MBC) have partnered with the Halifax and Charlotte county school divisions to extend broadband internet service to some 100 homes in remote areas of both counties, with free access for educational purposes and paid-commercial service for those who want full use of the web.

Dubbed the “Closing the Homework Gap” project, the 100-household local initiative is now being touted by Microsoft as a template for how to expand broadband internet in rural areas across the country.

On Tuesday, Microsoft president Brad Smith unveiled a plan in Washington to partner with rural telecommunications providers in 12 states from Washington to Maine to directly connect 2 million rural users to high-speed internet. The proposal relies in part on the same technology that has been implemented in Halifax and Charlotte to provide wireless service using the largely-abandoned UHF television spectrum — the “white spaces” that once appeared as snowy patterns on analog television screens.

Around the same time that Smith was speaking at the capital, representatives with Microsoft and MBC hosted a visit to South Boston by Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The meeting, at MBC offices in town, was closed to the media and public.

Microsoft’s proposal drew immediate praise and some denunciations from broadcasters who said the project would not work as well as Microsoft says, and could interfere with existing uses of the white space spectrum. It continues to carry niche local access programming in sparsely-populated areas.

Smith, who is Microsoft’s chief legal officer as well as company president, described the oft-cited digital divide as “a problem that is receiving a great deal of attention, but not many solutions.

“The time is right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious but achievable goal — to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years by July 4, 2022. We believe the nation can bring broadband coverage to rural America in this timeframe, based on a new strategic approach that combines private sector capital investments focused on expanding broadband coverage through new technologies, coupled with targeted and affordable public-sector support,” he said.

In Halifax and Charlotte counties, Microsoft, MBC and local internet service providers have installed networking equipment — frequently at public facilities such as schools — to allow rural dwellers to receive a signal over the UHF spectrum. Microsoft and MBC have each chipped in $250,000 for the initiative, matched by a $500,000 grant by the Virginia Tobacco Commission. Eventually, the partners expect to extend high-speed internet to 183 schools in the southern Virginia area.

Using the system, students can access the internet for free to work on educational projects — online homework and testing, research and other learning tasks. Smith noted in his Washington presentation that high-speed internet is a “critical connection to a better education and living. New cloud services are making broadband a necessity to start and grow a small business and take advantage of advances in agriculture, telemedicine and education. In short, broadband has become a vital part of 21st century infrastructure.”

Microsoft operates a cloud computing complex in Boydton, encompassing an investment in the billions.

Under the tech giant’s proposal, white spaces internet could be best deployed in areas where the population density is between two and 200 people per square mile, which Smith estimates comprises 80 percent of rural America.

Rural towns with denser populations could best be served with more conventional, fixed location wireless and hard-wired systems such as fiber optics and cable TV internet, while residents of the most out-of-the-way areas — those where the population density is below two persons per square mile — could receive wireless internet through satellite services.

White space internet is ideally suited for rural areas, Smith added, because the powerful bandwidth of the UHF signal can “travel over hills and through buildings and trees. It’s why people could watch television programs in rural communities long before the advent of satellite television.

“Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this spectrum, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users,” he said.

Microsoft’s next step will be to work with internet providers in 12 states on projects that are similar to the effort in southern Virginia.

To make the approach work, Smith said, the FCC will need to enact regulatory changes to set aside use of the white space on a permanent basis for the provision of rural internet service.

In an op-ed piece — published in the Thursday edition of the N&R — Pai wrote that bridging the digital divide is “an American priority,” with bipartisan support, and “I hope we can work together to bring the bounty of the digital revolution to every part of rural America.” He did not comment specifically on Microsoft’s proposal, although the FCC press office did acknowledge his visit to South Boston to talk with Microsoft and MBC officials.

National broadcast groups quickly fired back at Microsoft for overselling its idea, and industry reps further criticized Microsoft for declining to take part in a federal auction of unused spectrum which it now wants to tap.

The National Association of Broadcasters said it was the “height of arrogance” for Microsoft to “demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on TV airwaves” in FCC auctions. Broadcasters have also raised fears that running wireless signals through UHF white spaces could interfere with the ongoing purpose of the bandwidth space — to serve as a buffer zone to keep adjacent channels from interfering with each other.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank partly funded by Microsoft, downplayed concerns that white space internet could interfere with television signals.

“In rural areas, there aren’t that many television broadcasters so there’s a lot of unused spectrum,” Brake told the AP. “The real challenge is getting the number of users, the scale. Is there enough of a market for the device manufacturers to build these devices?”

To help overcome the cost challenges of implementation, Microsoft called on the FCC and other government entities to provide seed funding for the most promising approaches for rural areas. Smith noted in his Washington speech that white space networks such as the one in use locally can bring about “a dramatic reduction in the cost of bringing broadband rates to rural communities.”

He pegged the initial operating and capital cost at $8-12 billion for service throughout rural America — “roughly 80 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G."

Smith’s presentation is available here.

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ms wants to replicate a $10,000 dollars a household set up (100 households for $1,000,000) they say if would cost 8-12 billion to be set up for technology that will be obsolete in 10 or so years, and thats even if they find the and operate and maintain the system.
this is neither free nor a long term solution to the the problem.

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