Last week’s Government decision to award the national broadband plan contract to Granahan McCourt wasn’t the only big recent announcement about improving rural connectivity.
On April 27, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan launched an important Airband broadband project at Ballyhaise Agricultural College in Co Cavan.
The Airband story is important because it illustrates the huge challenge for the Government to extend high-speed broadband nationwide, and because it is how one of the world’s biggest companies would tackle this challenge.
That company is Microsoft, the world’s largest computer software maker.
Microsoft shares with rural dwellers worldwide the frustration of missing out on the connectivity which is taken for granted in urban areas.
The company knows better than most that a high-speed broadband connection to the internet is needed to do well in today’s ever more digital world of cloud computing and other advances enabling humankind to do more, and do it more quickly.
Microsoft was frustrated to see this service, as critical as a phone or electricity, still unavailable to roughly 25 million Americans, more than 19 million of which live in rural communities.
Despite public investment in the US of more than $22 billion in subsidies and grants to telecommunications carriers to improve broadband in rural America, adoption of broadband didn’t budge much since 2013.
There’s an inability to build out the “last mile” of digital infrastructure that communities need to run a modern business, access tele-medicine, take an online class, digitally transform their farm, or research a school project.
It’s no coincidence that US Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data shows the highest unemployment rates are frequently in the counties with the lowest availability of broadband.
So Microsoft came up with the Airband plan to solve the broadband gap.
It’s based on using wireless technology to bridge the broadband divide.
It was wireless technology that delivered universal adoption of radio and colour broadcast television in 25 years.
In contrast, wired technologies like phone landlines, electricity, cable or broadband, typically plateau at 70% penetration in the US, before bridging the last mile.
Meanwhile, mobile phones neared 100% penetration in 14 years, and smartphones in just eight years, in the US.
The particular wireless technology favoured for the Microsoft Airband plan is to use TV white spaces.
This is unused spectrum in the UHF television bands.
It’s what enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees.
It’s why rural people could watch TV long before satellite TV arrived.
And it’s not just for the US. Microsoft has deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries, that have served 185,000 users.
In the US, work has been done to prepare for using this spectrum to scale in an affordable way.
Microsoft and others have worked to perfect the hardware and software, develop standards, and innovate for a practical business model.
This market is now poised to accelerate, given the right steps, according to Microsoft, and TV white spaces will be the best approach to reach underserved, low-density, rural populations.
The recommended mixed model combines wireless technologies including 4G and TV white spaces, traditional fibre-based connectivity, and satellite coverage, to extend rural broadband access.
Using this approach, Microsoft has partnerships in 16 states that will bring broadband connectivity to more than one million rural residents for the first time.
Falling cost is also giving the Airband Initiative momentum, with the price of a TV white spaces network connectivity device falling from $800 to less than $300 in 18 months.
As a result of the progress, the Microsoft Airband target in the US has been increased from broadband access for two million rural people by July 2022 to three million.
Microsoft says it will not enter the telecommunications business itself, or profit directly from these projects, but is prepared to invest and serve as a catalyst for broader market adoption of this new model.
Welcoming Airband to Ireland, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan said there are almost 70 Airband projects in the US, South America and Africa.
“If the technology is successful in an Irish context, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, I think there is a real opportunity to be creative and look at new solutions, like Airband, to deliver the type of service that our more remote rural communities need and deserve.”
The Airband broadband pilot project in Co Cavan will provide remote internet connectivity to the Teagasc Agricultural College at Ballyhaise, and potentially some surrounding households.
It will allow students at the college to access internet-based digital technology while in the fields and outbuildings across the 220-hectare campus.
This gives them access to useful AI and data analytics, for better decision making.
Later, advances in precision agriculture, big data, and artificial intelligence, will be enabled.
It is the first project of its kind in Ireland, and will inform how a similar solution can be deployed in other Irish rural or agricultural settings. The pilot project will run for up to eight months.
Teagasc Director Professor Gerry Boyle said the project brings technology previously restricted to the classroom, in areas such as measurement and utilisation of grass, information which is then stored “on the cloud”, which can be captured on handheld devices in the field for immediate management decisions on how much grazing to give to animals.
“We are also delighted to be partnering with Microsoft on a range of other digital projects that will enable Ireland’s food sector to continue to grow in a manner that meets the highest standards of sustainability.”
Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director of Microsoft Ireland said: “We are delighted to partner with Teagasc to develop a range of technology solutions to help farmers across the country benefit from digitisation.
For the EU, and Commissioner Hogan, it’s part of one of the ten priorities the Commission set out five years ago — to establish a functioning digital single market.
Only 40% of rural homes in the EU have fast broadband, compared to 75% of urban areas.
He welcomed a state body like Teagasc working with a technology company like Microsoft on solving the huge urban-rural gap in connectivity which the EU is working on.
“I will be watching the results closely,” said Commissioner Hogan.
“The 60% of rural homes across Europe that are still waiting to participate fully in our growing digital single market deserve nothing but our best collaborative efforts.
Today is a very good start.”