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Microsoft’s Ambitious White Space Technology For India Might Not Get A Lift-Off Anytime Soon

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Microsoft’s plans to increase internet penetration in the country using White Space technology may not get the free spectrum it had demanded, in order to propel the launch on a mass scale.

The Union minister for communications and IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad recently told The Economic Times in an interview that spectrum would be provided only through auctions. He said, 

The government will not provide any spectrum without auction and the only exception will be for the defence and the security establishments.

These statements should also been taken into the context of the ongoing net neutrality debate, fuelled by Facebook’s not-so-free Free Basics initiative. The government has played it cautiously ever since this debate came into light with Airtel’s free internet scheme, followed by Facebook’s (now Free Basics).

White Space is a technology which uses unused spectrums between the TV channels to provide low-cost internet connectivity to rural areas. Using a White Space Device(WSD), the technology offers digital connectivity up to a speed of 10Mbps around the radius of 10 km.

This is far superior to a regular Wifi signal of 100 metres. Moreover, the technology can also run on solar power making it extremely suitable to regular places in India which still do not have access to 24*7 electricity.

In India, Microsoft has been pitching for White Space technology for quite some time now. It is running pilot projects in two districts of India in Andhra Pradesh and Varanasi and is now demanding for free spectrum to launch the service on a mass scale.

The unused spectrum which Microsoft intends to use is the 200-300 MHz spectrum currently owned by the Doordarshan and the government.

However, this has met with opposition from telcos and Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). They are not against the technology itself but are demanding an auction of the spectrum, instead of allocating it to one company. According to a Supreme court ruling also, all the spectrums used for commercial purposes should be allocated through auctions.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has claimed that it did not have any intentions of becoming a service provider itself and would only empower local entrepreneurs to offer last-mile connectivity in areas that are difficult for telecom service providers to reach.

The government has set up a committee to look into the feasibility of white space technology and frame guidelines for its implementation in the country.

The committee is headed by Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, department of electrical engineering, IIT, Madras and has people from Department of electronics and information technology, department of telecom, Ministry of information and broadcasting and academia. It also includes executives from Microsoft Research as well.

There is a policy coming soon. It will be good for everybody, for the telecom players, for Digital India, for everybody.

said an anonymous member of the committee. However, he added that “nothing will be free”.

White Space technology has already been successfully deployed in the US. In addition to India, White Space Technology is being tested in  Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and the Philippines as well. Last year, it also got the clearance in the UK region by its telecom regulator Ofcom.

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