Microsoft Brands Rural Divide 'National Crisis'

While presidential candidates are eyeing Iowa for another reason, Microsoft is there this week--at the State Fair--to pitch its Airband solution to the rural broadband divide, a gap in broadband access it is branding an "urgent national crisis" as it looks to lasso more spectrum from the government. 

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

While some may be attending the fair to see the life-size butter cow or the "mutton Bustin' kids sheep-riding challenge, Microsoft is looking to attract fair-goers with some down (broadband) home talk about their "digital realities," the promise of "reliable, affordable, broadband," and maybe buttonhole a couple of baby-kissing pols for a conversation in the bargain.

Microsoft is pushing the FCC to allow more sharing of the "white spaces" in the broadcast band for unlicensed wireless, while broadcasters are more circumspect about the prospect, though willing to explore most of Microsoft's efforts, so long as broadcast signals are protected from interference, and from Microsoft's efforts to free up the first channel adjacent to broadcasters in the band for unlicensed use.  

In an interview with C-SPAN, National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith said broadcasters were now in a good place with Microsoft on white spaces after what he said was the computer company's launch of a PR campaign before it had a legislative policy campaign. But that does not include giving up that buffer channel, which NAB continues to signal is too close for comfort. 

In a blog post Thursday (Aug. 8), Shelley McKinley, head of technology and corporate responsibility for Microsoft said it has been clear the deployment gap is a crisis "for some time," which is why it is pusing its Airband initiative, which is scheduled to reach 3 million poeple in "unserved" rural areas by 2020. 

McKinley did not name Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who just announced her own rural broadband plan, though she did write that it was "encouraging" to see new proposals introduced by Democratic candidates. 

Broadcasters have said that if Microsoft's Airband initiative is really focused on the rural divide, there is plenty of open spectrum to use without getting too close to existing broadcasters. But McKinley said that there are broadband "deserts" in urban areas, too, "where costs can be unaffordable and availability non-existent." 

"To be sure, there are efforts underway to provide the funding and assistance needed to expand broadband coverage for rural areas, by the administration, Congress, governors and the private sector," she conceded, "including Microsoft and our Airband partners. But much more needs to be done to translate proposals into action."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.