In 2017, in an effort to secure guaranteed access to free nationwide spectrum, Microsoft announced the “Airband Initiative,” hyped as a plan to address the rural broadband gap. The Initiative relies heavily on unlicensed use of unoccupied channels in the television band, known as TV “white spaces.”
At that point, almost 10 years after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initially authorized white spaces operations, the technology was a Google Glass-level disappointment. There were only approximately 800 white spaces devices – yes, only 800 – operating across the entire country and promises of “Super Wi-Fi” or “gigabit speeds” spurring billions of dollars of investment were empty.
The Airband Initiative allegedly represented a significant step up in Microsoft’s commitment to white spaces technology. To demonstrate this commitment, Microsoft announced that it was partnering with other companies in rural Virginia to create the largest TV white spaces network in the United States. This network would serve school children in Halifax and Charlotte County, with the potential to reach over 1,000 homes using high power white spaces base stations and client devices in each home. At least it was a start.
Or so we thought. Four years later, there are no white spaces devices in Halifax or Charlotte County. There are just two devices registered in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia and, given that those devices are more than 100 miles away from each other, they definitely aren’t communicating with anyone. Four years ago, when NAB was telling the FCC that the white spaces experiment looked like a failure, there were approximately 800 devices registered in the United States. Today there are just over 300. In other words, four years after we pointed out that white spaces had not achieved any material success at scale, use of the technology went down. The ambitious promises, the slick video, the very big and very serious deal – it’s all turned out to be hot air.
Ordinarily we would be content to let white spaces proponents continue their ongoing imitation of a Nick Young GIF. The problem is these proponents are currently urging the Commission to move forward with additional rule changes that will increase the potential for interference to television service just months after the FCC’s latest rule changes to benefit this technology. Even more remarkably, they are also seeking to overturn rules the Commission recently adopted to further the deployment of Next Generation TV services and improve service to television viewers, effectively constraining broadcasters from offering services broadcasters are actually currently deploying to protect Microsoft’s ability to offer theoretical services. (At some point. Maybe.)
Microsoft is a sophisticated technology company worth around $1,890,000,000,000. The number of FCC filings from Microsoft and its allies are going to exceed the number of functioning white spaces devices in the country any minute, but we keep being told that just one more rule change is the key to success. If white spaces is a workable technology with a role to play in rural broadband (and “if” is doing a lot of work in that sentence) Microsoft really, really doesn’t need yet more help to make it work. At some point, preferably before we dedicate more regulatory time and energy to this particular science fair project (and let’s not forget that companies like Microsoft pay zero regulatory fees to the FCC), it would be nice to see something – anything really – come of the Commission’s previous efforts.