By: Craig Settles
Terrain, demographics, trees, hills, politics, and low population density all conspire to block rural residents from getting easy internet access.
Could that be changing?
A year ago Microsoft announced its Airband Initiative, an effort to move TV whitespaces from a good idea to a working technology. The project coordinates smaller Internet service providers, manufacturers, and software vendors around the new technology. Some early signs hint at future successes.
“At least 100,000 Ohioans who currently have no broadband should become connected thanks to Microsoft and TV whitespace,” says Kyle Quillen, founder and CEO of Agile Networks. He said Microsoft’s efforts eclipse the work of other tech giants to reach rural parts of the United States.
Amazon is focusing broadband work in the United Kingdom and Germany. Google Fiber has stuck to cities, many already mainstays of the digital economy (Seattle, Austin, and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, for example). Facebook has pilot projects, primarily in developing nations, but members of Congress would like them to do more. Facebook’s effort to serve Africa via satellite literally exploded on the launch pad in 2016.
The Microsoft initiative is focusing especially on small communities and hard-to-reach areas. The corporation is not getting into the Internet business. Instead, they are helping coordinate the people and institutions that need to work together to successfully roll out the new broadband delivery technology. Besides TV whitespaces, the effort will also use fixed wireless and satellite.
“Our goal is to extend broadband access to 2 million unserved people in rural America by 2022 using a mix of technologies,” said Paul Garnett, senior director of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative. “Any profits from revenue sharing agreements with telecom partners will then be reinvested into our Airband Initiative to further expand broadband access.”
The Evolution of Whitespaces
TV whitespaces is not a new idea. But its use in the field has been slow in coming.
“Some of us have been hearing about white space for years,” says Frank Odasz, principal at Lone Eagle Consulting in Montana. “It would be nice if this initiative becomes more then ‘the politics of appearances.’”
TV whitespaces refer to frequencies that are licensed to a television broadcaster but not in use locally. TV whitespaces technology uses these open frequencies to transmit data, similar to Wi-Fi. Unlike Wi-Fi, signals in this part of the spectrum carry farther and penetrate trees, glass, and other obstacles. TV whitespace is free to use.
Quillen and others in broadband business evaluated TV whitespace to assess their viability for carrying broadband data. “Six or seven years ago we tested equipment designed to harness TV whitespace,” he said. “But the technology really wasn’t there yet. The capacity was weak, the equipment was incredibly complex to use. It wasn’t ready for prime time in any form, shape, or fashion. It was more of a science project.”
Libraries, however, were already adept at providing free Wi-Fi within communities. TV whitespace seemed ideal for small towns and sparsely populated rural areas, so several of libraries started testing the technology and wireless applications. An association formed, Gigabit Libraries Networks (GLN), to create TV white spaces application test-beds. One team prototyped a mobile app for school buses, which became an early Airband service. The project allowed students to be online during their rides to and from school.
“By mounting a base station atop a water tower and connecting the service to Allband’s (a telecom co-op and Microsoft partner) fiber network, the initiative provides 360-degree coverage to more than 90% of the Hillman [Michigan] District’s school bus routes,” says Garnett. “What used to be wasted time on a painful commute is now an opportunity to learn, study, and pursue their full potential.”
Filling the Gap
The problem of poor broadband access hurts rural businesses. Adi Nativ, vice president of global business development for fixed wireless manufacturer Radwin (another Microsoft partner), relates one painful story.
“A trucking company that delivers agricultural products to customers in the rural areas outside of Portland, Oregon, has to close his business,” says Nativ.
Government regulations now require him to track drivers’ sleep patterns, payloads, bridge height and other data. With just 10 Mbps he could comply with regulations as well as more effectively manage his trucks.
“That’s the thing about rural,” says Nativ. “Vendors have built many apps that are good for 50% of businesses in the country. But there are rural areas that can’t support even 10 Mbps speed. This is the type of gap that Microsoft is filling – the WISP (wireless internet service provider) that has 10 home-based businesses, three or four farms, and a local retail business just over the mountain.”
As for local broadband businesses, both telco and electric co-ops are putting their hats into the ring. In addition, local communities are forming their own co-ops in search for the most effective and affordable solutions to close the broadband gap. TV whitespace makes a lot of sense in that context.
Access to Telehealth
TV whitespaces can make a big impact in expanding telehealth to reach underserved rural communities, Microsoft’s Garnett believes.
“Telehealth can help address that, but it’s hard for telehealth to take off if over 24 million people in rural America still don’t have broadband access,” he says. “Without it, they can’t take advantage of remote consults, medical staff can’t monitor health vitals remotely, and so on.”
Microsoft’s Airband Grant Fund supports promising, early-stage entrepreneurs addressing the connectivity gap. Earlier this year, they announced an investment in Numbers4Health. The telehealth vendor places health information software and technology at schools, allowing for quicker assessments and recovery plans for injured student athletes.
Their CEO, Peg Molloy, says the technology not only helps at the point of care for clinicians, it helps them capture and use data.
“You need data access immediately to manage diseases, injuries, or chronic illnesses,” she says. “If you can’t get to broadband, you can’t get to the cloud. Without getting to the cloud, you can’t do the cool stuff that you need or want to do.”
Garnett says government regulators can help make TV whitespaces a successful technology for rural broadband. “With the right policy framework the cost of TV whitespace deployment will be lower, and the choice of components, equipment, vendors, and broadband providers will be greater,” he says.
Overall, it appears that Microsoft is taking a course less traveled. Those who came of professional age in the 90s may recall when the technology behemoth could be accused of a lot of things, but “playing nice with others” was not one of them. Now it seems that Microsoft is gladly willing to be the conductor and not the soloist.
“No one in the initiative wants to be a monopoly,” says Nativ. “No one technology or company is going to be able to achieve the initiative’s bold goal.”