​Microsoft's plan to connect billions using 'white space' runs into trouble

The Indian government has other plans for the unutilized TV spectrum used in white space technology.

The world may seem awash with iPhones and smartwatches but the reality for much of its population is very different. Close to 3 billion people don't have internet access, including at least a billion in India. Consequently, the race to connect them has been an urgent priority, especially for companies like Google and Microsoft who are deeply entrenched in doing it in unorthodox, cheap ways but arguably for their own ultimate benefit.

The internet may not be a magic bullet but better connectivity invariably leads to better information and delivery of public goods, thereby leading to better livelihoods. One of those ingenious methods is using white space.

White space is ideal for connecting India's rural poor primarily because of the inexpensive nature of the technology and its advantages in remote, impenetrable terrain, which telecom companies still haven't got to or don't want to get to. This is because the capital costs that they would have to shoulder to place towers there cannot be monetized by as yet.

But where telecoms fear to tread, white space can easily go. The technology essentially harnesses unutilised television spectrum, lying about as a result of buffers being kept between channel frequencies, for wireless connectivity. This spectrum lives in the 470MHz to 790MHz spectrum band and is at a lower frequency than cellphone signals.

Now, your normal home routers have a 10 to 20-metre range, but white space frequencies can span 10 to 15 kilometres, and are able to easily penetrate buildings, foliage, and terrible weather. The solution altogether presents a much lower-capex cost due to base stations covering a much larger area, and an ideal one to quickly and inexpensively bring the internet to India's 500,000 villages rather than laying fibre all the way to the last mile.

Having test-driven this innovative technology thoroughly in Africa in pilot programs over the past years under the 4Afrika initiative, and having run a pilot in India in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Microsoft appears to be the right entity to execute this challenge. Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, even pushed this issue with fellow Indian, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during the PM's visit to Silicon Valley last year, and everything was primed for a revolutionary event in the history of technology and rural livelihoods.

That is, until the Indian Minister for Communications and IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad, plunged a dagger deep into the heart of the white space initiative stating, "The government will not provide any spectrum without auction and the only exception will be for the defence and the security establishments."

Apparently, a committee for the purpose of a draft policy has now been formed by the government to study the whole thing and includes representatives from both the appropriate government ministries as well as members of the technology community, which includes academia.

However, "nothing will be free", said a person higher up in the government, according to the Economic Times. Even the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has apparently been lobbying against Microsoft and is trying to convince the government to ensure that a valuable asset isn't gifted away to a foreign multinational. (The truth is, they're probably seeing their future data and voice revenues evaporate as 70 percent of Indians living in the hinterland use WhatsApp for all of their communication via their home Wi-Fi connection.)

Is the government being short-sighted? Microsoft India chairman Bhaskar Pramanik wonders what could be wrong with freeing up a small amount of dormant spectrum so that a staggering 70 percent of India can instantaneously be connected. Microsoft says that by rolling out 100MHz for free, entities such as "banks, post offices, local grocery stores, self-help groups, and local entrepreneurs" can get a vital boost to their activities in an area where resources are seldom available.

The problem is, Facebook has now ruined the prospects of any kind of initiative that advertises a philanthropic agenda. Facebook's massive and somewhat duplicitous lobbying of its "Free Basics" scheme -- which Indians saw through for going against net neutrality by offering free but selected access to service providers -- will no doubt haunt efforts such as Microsoft's white space program, especially if the initiative involves handing over 100Mhz of spectrum where, for instance, a 5MHz block in the 900MHz band previously cost a telecom company around $6.5 billion.

Microsoft's India chairman Pramanik, however, dismisses notions of using white space for its own interest. "We have never had the intention to be the service provider; our goal is very simple, we want to empower entrepreneurs. I [Microsoft] invented the technology ... but I have no play in that, I am just providing the technology, based on which partners have created communication equipment which enables connectivity."

Of course, If there can be enough safeguards designed to hold Pramanik and Microsoft to his word, the government should be forced to look at the greater public good than the fixation to monetise a public asset that was lying undisturbed until now. It will not get a chance better than this one to wire the masses for next to nothing.

Either way, the draft policy will soon shed further light on the issue just as the telecom regulator's (TRAI) did on "Free Basics", so stay tuned.

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