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Microsoft’s TV White Space Rural Broadband Solution Expands in America

Microsoft is indirectly getting into the internet access business with its support for white-space wireless internet access for two million rural Americans by 2022.

The project will involve a partnership putting Microsoft’s financing together with rural telecommunications companies that want a rural broadband solution for their customers.

Microsoft has spent at least a decade promoting “white space” wireless broadband, which works over unused UHF TV channels. An internet provider markets the service as a next generation Wi-Fi network, capable of serving customers over a much larger distance than traditional in-home or business Wi-Fi. The service transmits from strategically placed antenna towers that are capable of delivering internet access to dozens of families in an immediate area.

Pilot projects not associated with Microsoft are already up and running in selected rural areas with mixed results. None of the projects have lived up to their pre-launch hype, but most have been a significant improvement over satellite internet access. Speed variability and capacity has proven difficult technical challenges, and finding ongoing financial resources to maintain the wireless network once constructed has also been a challenge.

Rural community politics is never too far away. Thurman, N.Y.’s white space broadband project Stop the Cap! wrote about two years ago has turned into a political football. Only about three dozen residents subscribe to the white space internet service and vocal opponents of the project and controversy over other spending initiatives caused the town’s CEO and one board member to resign. Town meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches as recriminations are fired back and forth. One of the project designers resigned after the town refused to honor an invoice for a cost overrun. The white space project was funded with a grant that required local matching funds. With only a few dozen customers using the service, some taxpayers object to underwriting its expenses.

The technology has not been a runaway success in the U.S., but Microsoft has had better luck funding internet access to 185,000 people in 20 wireless projects, many in the developing world.

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith today introduced Microsoft’s plan to expand white space internet in the U.S., pointing to a white paper laying out Microsoft’s rural broadband strategy, which will leverage several wireless technologies.

A combination of technologies can substantially reduce the total cost of extending broadband coverage. Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology.

One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places. TV white spaces is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. […] Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile. This mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.

To cover the costs, Microsoft has agreed to front its own money and recover it later. The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. received $250,000 from Microsoft. Another $500,000 originated with the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and another $250,000 came from the telecom company. Mid-Atlantic hopes to expand white space internet access to 1,000 local customers by the end of the year.

Mid-Atlantic today offers residents in Charlotte and Halifax counties, two rural regions in southern Virginia, free internet access to a limited number of education-related sites with speeds of 3-4Mbps. Customers can pay to access the entire web at those speeds for about $10 a month. A premium tier raises speeds to 8-10Mbps for $40 a month. About 90% of subscribers have chosen the free service, an alarming percentage for any company trying to sell internet access and recoup its investment. It currently costs around $1,000 to hook up each customer, a number local officials hope to reduce to $100 eventually.

Microsoft argues the technology is still cheaper than the alternatives – 80 percent less costly than fiber to the home service and half the price of 4G LTE wireless.

To guarantee the technology will work, Microsoft wants to preserve unlicensed frequencies not currently in use by licensed television stations for “white space” broadband.

“The Incentive Auction reduced the number of available channels that can be used for TV white spaces technologies,” Microsoft noted in its white paper. The company is referring to the FCC’s auction of UHF TV licenses, freeing up channels to be repurposed for wireless data expansion by the country’s mobile phone operators. “To make the significant investments necessary to reach economies of scale, potential TV white spaces network operators and device and chip manufacturers have converged on the need for a minimum of three usable TV white spaces channels in every market, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets.”

In other words, Microsoft wants the FCC to ensure at least three unused UHF channels in each city in the country are kept available for unlicensed spectrum users, like white space internet. That brought a scathing response from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) who called Microsoft’s request “nonsense on its face”:

The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough. If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, “you must reserve that chair for me, but don’t worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,” you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations. Microsoft is telling the Commission: (1) it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that (2) there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else. One of those assertions is untrue.

Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology. But the truth is the Commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince the Commission to give Microsoft a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.

Certain parts of the northeastern U.S. are signal-crowded, with no available white space channels.

The NAB objects to Microsoft requesting spectrum without directly paying for it, but Microsoft’s actual request is that those frequencies be reserved for unlicensed users of all kinds, not just for white space internet. The NAB accuses Microsoft of potentially increasing interference for licensed TV stations on a newly crowded, repacked UHF dial, a theory that seems unlikely in the most rural parts of the country where over the air television reception is problematic or non-existent. There are urban areas of the country, particularly in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor where open channel space is either not available or severely limited, but white space internet was designed to resolve rural broadband problems, not urban ones.

To find out what is true and what is theoretical Microsoft announced 12 new white space pilot projects in 12 U.S. states, including Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin that will be up and running over the next year. Few details are available about the specific communities involved or the types of access to be offered. Microsoft only said if it gets its way, it could be providing internet access to two million more Americans by July 4, 2022.

Most customers are likely not going to get the FCC’s definition of broadband (25Mbps) from the current generation of white space broadband technology. Speeds are often comparable to DSL and just as variable, depending on reception conditions. The NAB questions whether this technology will really make much difference.

“Microsoft has been making promises about white spaces technology for well over a decade,” the NAB wrote on a blog post, noting it estimates fewer than 300 customers are getting white space internet access in the U.S. “There remain few tangible consumer benefits associated with white spaces deployments across the U.S.”

For states like New York, embarked on their own efforts to achieve 100% broadband penetration, Microsoft’s project may be too little, too late. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo launched the final phase of the New NY Broadband Program in March, seeking to deliver a final round of funding to secure access to high-speed internet for all New Yorkers by the end of 2018, four years sooner than Microsoft’s target date for its project. New York’s rural broadband expansion program relies primarily on incumbent providers and helps subsidize expansion of their networks to reach customers deemed too expensive to serve without supplemental funding.

AT&T Fixed Wireless Expands to 8 New States; Up to 10Mbps, 160GB Usage Cap

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet, intended for rural areas, is now available in eight new states in the southern U.S., joining Georgia:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Louisiana

More than 70,000 locations can now subscribe to the fixed wireless service at prices ranging from $50-70 a month. AT&T said it was on track to expand the service to over 400,000 locations by the end of 2017 and over 1.1 million locations by 2020. Later this year, the service will be introduced in rural areas of Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

“We’re committed to connect hard-to-reach locations to the internet. This changes lives and creates economic growth for these areas,” said Cheryl Choy, vice president of wired voice and internet products at AT&T. “We’re excited to bring this service to even more underserved locations.”

An exact list of communities served isn’t available, but AT&T allows potential customers to enter their zip code on its website to determine availability.

AT&T introduced the fixed wireless service in parts of rural Georgia earlier this spring. The plan offers up to 10Mbps of speed with a 160GB monthly data cap. If a customer exceeds that amount, their account is charged $10 for each additional 50GB increment, up to a maximum overlimit fee of $200 a month.

Customers with a DirecTV and AT&T mobile phone subscription can get AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service for $50 a month. Those who don’t have a satellite package but are willing to sign a one-year contract will pay $60 a month. If you want to skip the contract, the price rises to $70 a month. An installation fee of $99 also applies, unless a customer also signs up for DirecTV.

Charter Forced to Set Aside $13 Million for Failing to Meet Merger Commitments to New York State

The New York State Department of Public Service today announced it had reached a potential settlement with Charter Communications after the company failed to meet its rural broadband expansion obligation outlined in last year’s approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

“The [Public Service] Commission conditioned its approval of the merger on Charter’s agreement to undertake several types of investments and other activities,” said Department interim CEO Gregg C. Sayre. “While Charter is delivering on many of them, it failed to expand the reach of its network to un-served and under-served communities and commercial customers in the time allotted.”

While Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks won rubber-stamp approval in almost every state where it operates, New York regulators required the merger to directly benefit the state’s consumers. The company must upgrade customers to 100Mbps service by the end of 2018 and offer at least 300Mbps statewide by the end of 2019. But it must also expand its cable network to reach 145,000 unserved and underserved homes and businesses within the next four years. The merger approval agreement set a schedule to begin network expansion as quickly as possible.

Charter failed to achieve its obligations, only reaching 15,164 of the 36,250 customers it was required to reach one year after the merger deal was approved.

As a result, regulators have penalized Charter, requiring it to pay an extra $1 million in grants for computer equipment and internet access targeting low-income New York residents and set aside $12 million in escrow as a security pledge to meet all of its network expansion commitments going forward. The company now agrees it will complete its build out obligation in six increments of 21,646 customers through May 18, 2020. Charter will forfeit a portion of the $12 million each time it misses a deadline. The amount lost will depend on the percentage of the target missed and whether the company demonstrates it has completed necessary tasks to expand service. If the company manages to meet its deadlines going forward, it has the right to earn back some or all of its security pledge.

Charter has also agreed to develop a communications plan within 60 days of the settlement’s execution to inform New Yorkers whether they are part of the build-out plan.

The settlement offer will issued for public comment, and will require final Commission approval to take effect.

Still No Fiber for Southern N.J.: State Settles with Verizon Over Poor Service

South Jersey: The worst broadband problems are in the southernmost counties closest to Delaware.

Customers hoping New Jersey’s telecom regulator would compel Verizon to expand fiber to the home service across southern New Jersey are out of luck.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved a settlement between Verizon New Jersey, Inc., Cumberland County, and 18 southern New Jersey towns that alleged Verizon failed to properly maintain its wireline network in areas where it has chosen not to deploy FiOS — its fiber to the home service. But the settlement will only compel Verizon to maintain its existing copper network and offer token DSL and FiOS expansion in some unserved rural communities.

“We have heard our customers’ concerns in South Jersey and are pleased to have reached an agreement with the approval of all 17 towns on a maintenance plan going forward,” said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. “We look forward to staying in regular communication with the towns to ensure our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect and deserve.”

“While the Board was fully prepared to proceed on this matter, the parties were able to reach a negotiated settlement which takes into consideration the needs of each community,” said Richard S. Mroz, president, N.J. Board of Public Utilities.

But some residents of those communities beg to differ.

“It’s another example of Chris Christie’s hand-picked regulators letting Verizon off the hook and sticking us in a digital divide,” complained Jeff Franklin, a Verizon DSL customer in Cumberland County. “Verizon should not be allowed to offer one half of the state modern broadband while sticking the rest of us with its slow DSL service.”

Franklin is upset that communities bypassed by Verizon’s FiOS network appear to have little chance of getting it in the future, now that regulators have agreed to allow Verizon to fix its own copper network.

“All the Board did was force Verizon to do what it should have been doing all along, taking care of its own network,” Franklin complained to Stop the Cap! 

Verizon did agree to expand its fiber network into the communities of Estell Manor, Weymouth Township, Corbin City, and Lower Alloways Creek Township, but only because of a 2014 agreement with Verizon compelling them to offer broadband to residents who read and complete a “Bona Fide Retail Request” (BFRR) form which stipulates homes and businesses in Verizon’s New Jersey territory can get broadband if they don’t have it now as long as these criteria are met:

  • Have no access to broadband service from a cable provider or Verizon;
  • Have no access to 4G-based wireless service; and
  • Sign a contract for at least one (1) year of broadband service and pay a $100 deposit.

“BFRR is a joke because it requires potential customers have no access to 4G wireless service,” claimed Franklin. “You have to go to the government’s National Broadband Map to determine eligibility, which is very tough because — surprise, surprise — Verizon itself contributed its 4G wireless coverage information for that map and as far as Verizon is concerned, their 4G coverage in New Jersey is beautiful, even though it really isn’t.”

If a single provider submits map data that shows a home address is already covered by 4G wireless service, even if that isn’t accurate on the ground, that customer is ineligible under the terms of BFRR. Even if they were able to subscribe to 4G broadband, most plans are strictly data capped or throttled.

Under the settlement, Verizon gets to choose what technology to deploy. Outside of the four communities getting FiOS, the rest of South Jersey will have to continue relying on Verizon’s DSL service. Verizon has agreed to extend DSL to 2,000 new residences and businesses in Upper Pittsgrove, Downe, Commercial, Mannington, Pilesgrove, and South Harrison. It will also fix some of its DSL speed congestion problems and monitor for future ones as part of the settlement.

But DSL won’t work if Verizon’s wireline network stays in poor shape. The company has agreed to deploy its “Proactive Preventative Maintenance Tool” (PPMT) to scan its copper network to identify and repair or replace defective cables. Verizon has also agreed to daily inspections of outside facilities and fix any detected problems within 30 days, as well as regularly reporting back on the condition of its infrastructure inside the towns affected under the settlement.

This agreement took a year and a half to reach and will keep the two parties out of court, but many are not satisfied being left with Verizon’s DSL service.

“Unfortunately, the BPU continues to allow Verizon to pick and choose which residents will receive modern telecommunications at an affordable cost,” Greg Facemyer, a Hopewell Township committeeman in Cumberland County, told NewsWorks. “The state legislature needs to recognize these inequities and step in and level the playing field for South Jersey. Otherwise, our region will continue to fall even farther behind and be less competitive.”

Kansas’ Double-Down on Trickle-Down, Deregulation Flops as Residents Leave the State

We will mail it to you on floppy disks because your internet connection is too slow to download it.

While FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) decry government regulation as responsible for destroying capital and incentives to invest, the state of Kansas this week ended its all-out experiment with deregulation and trickle-down economics on steroids, with a Republican-dominated state legislature calling it a giant flop.

In charge of the Grand Experiment in Trickle-Down, Doubled-Down is Gov. Sam Brownback, who has systematically hobbled the state’s social spending and investment programs since becoming governor in 2011. He adopted his ‘vision thing’ from Reaganomics proponent Art Laffer, who apparently forgot the Reagan Administration’s penchant for all things deregulation was not all sweetness and light and had to be tempered by President George H.W. Bush after he was elected in 1988.

But what if history could have a second chance? What if a state kept its pledge of no new taxes and slashed regulation and oversight to the bone. Would it result in a free market paradise where government got out of the way for the public good? Would lower taxes result in more tax revenue as Kansas businesses boomed? Would infrastructure take care of itself?

To find out, Brownback slashed the state’s income tax, eliminated the top income tax bracket and delivered a disproportionate share of the tax cut benefits to the economic motivators (also known as Kansas’ richest families) who would supposedly use the surplus to invest in businesses and jobs. At the urging of the powerful small business lobby, backed by the Koch Brothers and their octopus of astroturf anti-tax groups demanding reform, Brownback zeroed out taxes on “pass-thru” income, which effectively allowed anyone running a LLC or small business to evade taxes.

There were moderate Republicans in Kansas that warned about the prospects of Brownback’s questionable assertion that low taxes and low funding of the state government would bring a new era of growth and prosperity. But dark money and Koch’s political machine saw to it those politicians were “de-elected” and replaced with Brownback’s army of minions.

In addition to creating budgetary ruin with tax revenue cratering, essential digital infrastructure crashed and burned. Deregulation and a mediocre state broadband expansion effort didn’t make internet service in Kansas better. In fact it got worse, along with the finger-pointing over who was responsible.

Last fall, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts brought then FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to the community of Allen to meet with executives working for a dozen small telephone companies who were having trouble upgrading their networks across the great expanse of rural Kansas.

Brownback

Roberts wasn’t ready to claim federal government regulation was responsible for the mess. But Pai’s reflexive claims that deregulation incentivizes for-profit companies to invest in better broadband simply wasn’t working in Kansas either. The only solution for The Free Marketeers in rural Kansas turns out to be handing out government money to expand rural broadband, except in Kansas, there was very little money to be had after Brownback took an ax to the state budget.

The Wichita Eagle unintentionally drew a contrast between the thinking of providers that want to blame everyone else for the problem and plain reality for Brian Thomas, who works for the Blue Valley Tele-Communications Company.

“It really all comes down to a quality of life perspective,” Thomas told the newspaper. “I think we all live that. That’s our jobs, to provide that.”

The newspaper noted that without government money, the only way private companies could afford to pay to replace thousands of miles of ancient copper phone wiring in favor of fiber would be to make internet service so expensive that only businesses and the ultra-wealthy would be able to afford it.

So while Brownback’s great social experiment carried on, internet expansion and upgrades stalled in many communities across Kansas. In Allen, where Pai met to extol the virtues of private investment, the town librarian at Allen’s public library got some help from the Manhattan (Kansas) library system to install an inexpensive Wi-Fi hotspot that, once switched on, almost immediately filled its parking lot day and night with what the newspaper called “internet-starved townspeople.”

Allen County, Kan.

“There are several people who will watch movies outside” after hours, town librarian Nikki Plankington said. “The kids use it for the Pokemon Go thing. I don’t know what that’s all about, but the kids use it.”

While the public library did its part, Kansas’ for-profit private internet providers are going in a different direction – complaining a lot and asking for handouts with no strings attached.

The Eagle reported Pai’s meeting with rural telecom executives turned into a ‘whine and cheese’ reception. The phone companies had a laundry list of dislikes they wanted the deregulation-minded Pai to fix for them while they pondered upgrades:

  • The Universal Service Fund/Connect America Fund, financed by ratepayers through surcharges on their phone bills, was “obsolete” and didn’t provide enough money.
  • The federal government didn’t allow ISPs to chase after the deepest pockets to pay for their upgrades — popular online websites like Netflix and Amazon.com.
  • The FCC’s definition of broadband as 25Mbps ignored the fact Kansas phone companies wanted to deliver considerably lower speed service, claiming customers don’t want more than 10Mbps.

If the government could be lobbied to lower standards, eliminate regulation, and deliver or at least compel a cash welfare infusion from content providers and ratepayers, there was no need to ask rich Kansans to stop counting their money long enough to invest some of it in better broadband.

Catherine Moyer from Pioneer Communications claimed it was unfair to ask companies and customers to pay for upgrades when those internet titans like Netflix, Amazon, and Google make countless billions in profits using Pioneer’s network with absolutely no compensation for doing so.

“My customers and the customers here in Allen and all the customers in Wichita for that matter that have voice service pay a proportion of their bill,” she said. But, “there’s a whole group of people and companies utilizing the network that don’t pay into the fund in any meaningful way … so they haven’t helped build out this network.”

When the newspaper suggested she was effectively asking for higher taxes and paid lanes for internet content companies like Netflix that Moyer claimed was consuming 35% of Pioneer’s available bandwidth, she didn’t seem to have any objections.

“It’s not necessarily what people want to see, but in the same light, if you want these networks and you want these speeds, you have to somehow fund that. And who should fund it?” Moyer asked.

The next issue that doesn’t work for Kansas telecom companies is the FCC’s standard that broadband service be at least 25Mbps, and if a phone or cable company wants public dollars to build out their networks, they better choose a technology capable of delivering that kind of speed.

“One thing that kind of concerns me a little bit is having the FCC dictate, or Washington dictate, the level of speed I’m required to have in order to maintain a certain level of funding,” said Archie Macias of Wheat State Telephone, which serves rural communities in Butler, Cowley, Chase and Lyon counties. Macias is upset because his system uses fiber optics that can easily handle 25Mbps, but his customers only want to pay for 10Mbps.

“I’m not going to build a network that’s like having 500 channels on a TV that you’re going to watch 12 or 13,” he told the newspaper.

Wheat State currently offers four broadband plans in areas where fiber service is available:

  • $39.99 Pro (10/2Mbps)
  • $49.99 Multi-Pro (15/3Mbps)
  • $69.99 Power-Pro (25/5Mbps)
  • $79.99 Mega-Pro (50/20Mbps)
  • $10 discount when bundled with other services

What customers choose for broadband service is often an issue of pricing, not speed.

In more populated parts of Kansas, customers are still trying to cope with DSL service that has not seen significant upgrades for a decade. Since Brownback isn’t doing much to help, and tax cuts and deregulation have failed to inspire the kind of robust broadband expansion “light touch” regulation is supposed to provoke, a lot of Kansans are leaving the state for good.

An abandoned farm.

One of those threatening to flee is Christianne Parks, who lives in Allen and endures not-even-close-to-being-broadband.

“Eventually, I probably would get bored out of my mind and leave,” 19-year old Parks told the newspaper when asked what she would do if her broadband situation did not change.

Last fall, the newspaper pinpointed some of the real problems afflicting the state’s economy and missing from the list were taxes and regulation. Deregulation-inspired consolidation in the state’s critical agribusiness sector decimated rural farms and the local economies that depended on them. When the farmers leave, Main Street businesses soon follow. The 1970s and 1980s was the era of the Rust Belt in the northeast and midwest. Now parts of the midwest including Kansas risk being labeled a Wheat Belt of economic deterioration.

Since 2000, 81 of Kansas’ 105 counties have lost population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The consensus is that trend will get worse, according to the newspaper – especially among young people – until and unless someone can find a way to get better internet service to the outlands. Brownback’s hands-off policies favoring providers are in contrast to New York’s more aggressive rural broadband funding program that seeks to achieve near 100% penetration of broadband service in the state over the next few years. New York regulators also compel companies doing business in the state to share some of their wealth from mergers and acquisitions, most recently requiring Charter Communications and Altice to expand their broadband networks to improve service and reach customers they don’t serve today.

The free-market-solves-everything concept celebrated by Pai and the Koch Brothers has now been tested and failed in Kansas. Among the few bright spots for broadband in Kansas are civic-minded telephone or cable providers that look beyond return on investment formulas in their community, and more commonly community-owned broadband networks or co-ops with a motive beyond profit — delivering decent broadband to maintain, sustain, and grow their local economies.

Recovery from the “free market miracle” train wreck started last fall, when a wave of moderate Democrats and Republicans were elected with a pledge to do everything possible to kill Brownback’s vision of paradise. This week, the Republican-dominated legislature had enough of living in Brownback’s PretendLand and overrode his veto of their plan to raise income taxes across the board and kill his legalized tax evasion scheme for business owners to bring in an additional $1.2 billion over the next two years to invest in Kansas.

The improved broadband that could result may give something for the state’s wealthiest citizens to do in their free time besides count their money.

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