Friday, July 28, 2017

Harvard law professor says Microsoft's plan for 'super wi-fi' is no solution for rural America

Susan Crawford
(Harvard Law School photo)
Microsoft recently announced a plan to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas using the bandwidth from unused "white spaces" between television channels, but one columnist says it's a hustle for rural Americans. "Microsoft's plans aren't really about consumer internet access, don't actually focus on rural areas, and aren't targeted at the U.S.—except for political purposes," Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford writes in her column for Wired.

What's really going on, she says, is that "Microsoft is aiming to be the soup-to-nuts provider of Internet of Things devices, software, and consulting services to zillions of local and national governments around the world. Need to use energy more efficiently, manage your traffic lights, target preventative maintenance, and optimize your public transport—but you're a local government with limited resources and competence? Call Microsoft."

But in order to get its digital products to urban customers using "smart city" devices and apps, Microsoft often must pay fees to licensed mobile-data carriers, Crawford writes, and Microsoft wants to sidestep the digital toll road by creating bigger avenues for unlicensed data transmission, hence: white-space technology. The white-space tech is sometimes called "super wi-fi" because, like wi-fi, it's unlicensed. But wi-fi is short-range because it operates at such high frequencies. White-space technology could use lower frequencies to reach much farther.

Microsoft's plans for white spaces are far-reaching, and include other countries such as Jamaica, Namibia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Taiwan, and Colombia. But the company must get permission to use the tech in the U.S. because it won't be able to offer compatible devices at a low cost unless it can manufacture it at very large scales, Crawford writes. That large-scale manufacturing will only happen if U.S. customers are buying too.

But Crawford argues that even if Microsoft is sincere, white-space technology can't solve rural America's internet woes because the available spectrum isn't wide enough to allow for "genuine, world-class internet data transmission to human beings in living rooms," she writes. "White spaces will definitely be another arrow in the quiver used by local fixed wireless operations, but they are no kind of substitute for actual great consumer internet access in rural areas."

So why did Microsoft's announcement so heavily underline its usefulness in rural America? Crawford's guess is that publicly siding with rural areas will make the proposal politically bullet-proof, regardless of the project's true aims. Rural America is represented overwhelmingly by Republicans in the House and Senate, and the latter chamber is disproportionately rural because every state has two senators.

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