Since 2004 we've talked about the effort to take unlicensed spectrum, previously used by TV stations, and make a new wireless broadband delivery alternative. Dubbed "white spaces" (or occasionally and misleadingly "super WiFi") the technology has the potential to provide less expensive, niche connectivity in areas incumbent broadband providers are unwilling to upgrade. Even then, incumbent ISPs have consistently tried to kill the technology, as has the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), whose members aren't keen on an entirely new broadband and TV delivery mechanism they won't have control over.
This week, Microsoft punctuated years of global trials of this technology with the announcement that it would be deploying white space broadband to around two million Americans in 12 states (New York, Texas, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, Maine, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) over the next five years. According to Microsoft, the project should cost somewhere around $10 billion, and provide another layer of competition in some of the areas that need it most:
"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."
Of course the push to connect 2 million rural consumers to broadband in a nation where 34 million Americans still can't access broadband is a small drop in the dysfunction bucket. And Microsoft's obviously not operating out of blind altruism here, since like Facebook their focus on broadband is primarily driven by cornering the hardware used to receive these signals, and therefore the ad load. Still, it's at least an effort to do something to shore up connectivity in a nation that has let companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast dictate federal policy for decades -- to what should be obvious results.
White Space broadband has had a long, difficult road to arrival thanks in part to intense lobbying against the technology by incumbent broadband providers, companies like Cisco, and NAB. NAB's legal and PR assault on the technology has often been particularly comedic. At one point they employed Dolly Parton to rail against the technology, claiming it would cause interference armageddon. At several points NAB launched incredibly alarmist campaigns featuring grandmothers being left unable to watch their TV programs if white space broadband was allowed to materialize.
And while studies showed that a ham-fisted, idiotic approach to the technology might cause problems, those same studies indicated there were numerous ways to mitigate any potential issues. So plenty of very smart engineers spent the better part of a decade testing the technology, and developing an elaborate system of databases that can be used to track and prevent any potential interference in target markets. Microsoft meanwhile has been conducting trials to show the tech works as promised, and pushing the FCC to set aside unlicensed spectrum for broader adoption of the technology.
But, right on cue, NAB today issued a short and pithy statement crapping all over Microsoft's announcement, insisting the entire technology was little more than an "unmitigated failure":
"It's the height of arrogance for Microsoft -- a $540 billion company -- to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction," whined NAB. "Microsoft's white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure. Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming."
Again, while there are potential interference concerns, NAB likes to play those up for dramatic effect. Why? Because the organization's deeper-pocketed member companies (like, oh, Comcast NBC Universal) don't much like the idea of an entirely new technology disrupting the existing telecom and television ecosystems. After all, somebody might, oh, offer cable TV for less than the cost of a new Tesla, or deliver broadband that doesn't require a second mortgage. Hardware companies like Cisco similarly oppose the tech because they missed the boat on early hardware development (telecom sector lawyer Harold Feld explains this in great detail here).
All of that said, it's still not entirely clear if white space broadband will be anything more than a niche broadband solution. But it's at least another tool in the tool chest as we attempt to bring something vaguely resembling competition to bear on a captive market. And it should go without saying that there's oodles of legacy companies that like the current culture of dysfunction -- just the way it is.