Terrestrial fixed wireless technologies can and should be playing a greater role in closing the broadband divide, according to technology giant Microsoft, which is focused on bringing broadband access to 3 million unserved Americans living in rural communities through its Airband Initiative.
Millions of Americans today do not have access to high-speed broadband, leading to a disparity of prosperity and opportunity that is growing, particularly in rural areas, as our lives become increasingly digital. Microsoft views this growing gap as an urgent national problem that can and must be solved through development of innovative technologies, private-sector capital investment, the removal of regulatory uncertainty, and smartly targeted public sector funding.
Fixed wireless technologies play an important role in the company’s national effort, launched nearly two years ago, to eliminate the country’s rural broadband gap by July 4, 2022. Microsoft’s internet service provider (ISP) partners are extending broadband access in unserved rural communities by using a wide variety of technologies, including fixed wireless technologies leveraging TV white spaces and other spectrum bands, alongside 4G LTE, traditional fiber-based connectivity and satellite coverage. To date, Microsoft has forged partnerships in 16 states to bring broadband connectivity to more than 1 million rural residents who currently lack broadband access.
Shelley McKinley, General Manager of Microsoft’s Technology and Corporate Responsibility group (TCR), will discuss Microsoft’s connectivity initiatives and the important role the wireless infrastructure industry will play in closing the rural broadband gap during a keynote address at Connectivity Expo May 22 in Orlando. McKinley recently answered a few questions about Microsoft’s work to close the rural broadband gap, how the wireless infrastructure industry can help, and what role 5G might play in bringing broadband access to all Americans.
How can the Infrastructure community support Microsoft’s connectivity initiatives?
There is so much this community can do to help us connect people living in rural parts of our country. Towers and tall buildings, for example, are great places to install the antennas and radio devices that provide broadband internet services via TV white spaces or other fixed-wireless solutions. We also encourage the Infrastructure community to support any policies that enable network operators to access more spectrum bands. More intensive use of available spectrum will naturally increase utilization of wireless infrastructure. And at the federal and state levels, infrastructure investments should include technology-neutral targeted funds on a matching basis for capital investments that will best expand coverage into rural areas that lack broadband access today.
In North America, Microsoft partners with rural broadband carriers to deliver connectivity. How do these partnerships work?
Regional and local ISPs know their communities far better than we ever could, and understand their unique needs, opportunities and aspirations. That’s why we work directly with them to assess where we can best support and bolster their existing work to provide broadband connectivity in those towns and communities. We support these partnerships though direct investments, which might include capital, technology, expertise and digital skills training for newly connected communities. Currently, we have partnerships covering 16 states that will bring broadband connectivity to more than 1 million rural residents who lack access, and pilot programs in an additional seven states. And we’re not done. There’s still a lot more to do, but we’re feeling good about the progress we and our partners are making thus far.
Microsoft uses TV White Space technology for its last-mile access delivery. Does the company expect TV White Space technology to expand in North America?
We’re excited about the progress that has been made to further TV white spaces in the U.S., but there’s still more to be done. The FCC needs to ensure the continued use of the spectrum needed for this mixed-technology model. We’re happy to see the FCC really focus on this; just last month they took an important first step toward unlocking TV white space spectrum so rural communities can better access broadband connectivity. And there are several opportunities before the FCC right now to continue this progress and we encourage the Commission to move quickly on these items to help close the rural broadband gap.
Does Microsoft expect to use other technologies to deliver connectivity?
Oh definitely. We believe a mixed model is essential to truly solve the rural broadband gap. TV white spaces is one we are actively investing in — research from Boston Consulting Group really demonstrated how cost-effective it is as a tech solution, particularly in areas between two and 200 people per square mile. Where there are fewer than two people per square mile, satellite is more cost-effective because of the cost of infrastructure such as towers, and for populations greater than 200 people, LTE fixed-wireless is the optimal solution. Ultimately, our goal is to cover more people, and we want to use technologies that make the most sense for a given geography and community. We think that wireless technologies using TV white spaces are an important part of the mix necessary to reach that goal.
Is Microsoft looking at providing connectivity to more than residential?
Our goal with the Airband Initiative is to provide internet access to 3 million people in rural America by 2022. Each project varies within the communities – in addition to residential customers, the projects are helping to connect rural farmers, small business owners, schools, and hospitals, so that they can take advantage of the same opportunities as their connected neighbors.
How can ISPs get involved?
We’re are always on the lookout for new partners with a shared interest in providing broadband connectivity to rural communities. If you’re interested in learning more about our partnerships or programs, please contact us here.
What is the role of 5G, TVWS and other technologies in solving this broadband gap?
5G will play an important role in helping to bring high-speed internet to communities around the country and it’s certainly an important part of the mixed-technology model for providing internet access. 5G technologies are initially focused on delivering high throughput connections utilizing spectrum bands suitable for short range line-of-sight connections. While this is great for urban areas with high population densities, 5G may not be a viable solution right now for delivering last-mile broadband connectivity in rural parts of the country, where range and obstacle penetration are very important factors for delivery. That’s why we continue to invest in TV white spaces and other fixed-wireless technologies; they offer a cost-effective solution that isn’t limited by tough terrain, small populations and other factors that currently make solutions like fiber cable and 5G difficult or cost-prohibitive. There isn’t one magic solution that will fully address the broadband gap, it will take a combination of technologies, from 5G to TV white spaces to satellite and beyond.
Don’t miss McKinley’s keynote address at Connectivity Expo on Tuesday, May 21. McKinley joins distinguished business and industry leaders scheduled to deliver keynotes at the show, including Facebook’s Dan Rabinovitsj, Verizon’s Adam Koeppe and T-Mobile’s Neville Ray. For more insights on closing the digital gap, check out the session “Connectivity and Sustainability: Closing the Digital Exclusion Gap” Tuesday afternoon.
Visit www.connectivityexpo.com for the full list of speakers, keynotes, exhibitors and sessions.
Shelley McKinley is the General Manager of Microsoft’s Technology and Corporate Responsibility group (TCR) based in Redmond, Washington. TCR delivers on Microsoft’s mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more by driving the use of technology to benefit society, through leadership and innovation of technology in Accessibility and Environmental Sustainability, connecting underserved communities with internet access, deeply engaging with civic leaders and universities on the use of technology, and driving the company’s overall corporate responsibility transparency as reported on Microsoft’s Corporate Social Responsibility Reports Hub.
Also published on Medium.