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Microsoft Embracing White Spaces for Broadband Access

Microsoft earlier this month began advocating for greater broadband access in a policy blog, with a particular focus on a piece of spectrum called "white spaces."

White spaces are leftover patches of spectrum, formerly used to separate analog TV signals. Some industry groups want to repurpose this spectrum for general broadband use, especially as television stations transition from analog to digital broadcasting.

After much deliberation, federal officials agreed. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission said it planned to free up the white spaces for development.

But why should Microsoft care about broadband spectrum policy?

"This is about lowering the collective cost of extending the [broadband] network out to people who currently are not on that network," said Marc Berejka, Microsoft's senior director of technology policy and strategy. "White spaces offer the opportunity to extend coverage into areas where there is none and make a low-cost offer available to people who might not be able to afford 50 bucks a month."

The company already joined the White Spaces Database Group, a coalition of companies that will keep a database indicating use of the spectrum. Other members include Google, Comsearch, Dell, HP, Motorola and Neustar. 

The white spaces being considered for reallocation typically refer to leftover UHF 700 MHz spectrum. That spectrum promises better radiofrequency propagation characteristics than other unlicensed bands, such as the 2.4 GHz band used for hotspots and Wi-Fi access.

"People have referred to [white space] as a hotspot on steroids," Berejka said. "You cover greater distances and you can envision more neighborhood-oriented connectivity but with the same ease of access and low price points as you have with Wi-Fi connectivity."

Lest anyone get teary eyed at the altruism of the whole thing, Berejka is upfront that an increased number of broadband subscribers will be good for Microsoft's business. Microsoft envisions a bigger hotspot network built on white spaces spectrum and "that's good for Windows," Berejka said. "That's our angle. There's more connectivity for people," he said.

Microsoft's partners in promoting the use of white spaces -- Google, HP, Motorola, Dell and Philips Electronics -- see the commercial angle as well. The end game is to convince telecom carriers to think of unlicensed white space spectrum as a complement to existing wireless networks, not competition.

Convincing the carriers might be a hard sell, as some have paid to lease licensed 700 MHz spectrum. The 700 MHz white space spectrum currently serves as a buffer between airwaves being used by digital TV service providers and airwaves leased by mobile service providers such as Verizon and AT&T.

When all that's completed, the group wants to take its vision to the world.

"The U.S. has set the stage for industries to follow and start to create the devices and business models that will allow use of white spaces for broadband applications," Berejka said. "Now we, as an industry, need to develop technical specifications for the equipment manufacturers to follow [and] work with other regulators around the world to persuade them that they ought to follow the U.S. lead."

Berejka sees wireless as the principal means for closing the planetary digital divide.

"There are lots of people on the planet who don't have access to broadband. We asked ourselves how we start to close that gap," Berejka said. "The answer will need to be spectrum based because the distances are too large for laying coaxial cable or fiber optic cable to make a cost-effective offer available to individual households. For lots of the world, the answer needs to be wireless broadband."

About the Author

Jim Barthold is a freelance writer based in Delanco, N.J. covering a variety of technology subjects.

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