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TechConnect, Day Two: Microsoft Comes to Jekyll Island Looking for Partners

Randy Sukow Nov 16, 2017

Last summer, Microsoft announced its Rural Airband Initiative, an ambitious plan to eliminate all gaps in broadband service within five years by developing the TV white spaces. To put the plan into place, the company said that it needed rural partners to help manage and deploy fixed wireless broadband services. Who better for such a project than NRTC members?

“We’re looking for partnership, which is the reason we’re here,” said Paul Garnett, VP of the Airband program during a breakout session at NRTC’s TechConnect 2017 in Jekyll Island, GA.

Garnett said that Microsoft plans to spend its resources to work with rural partners with a goal of directly serving 2 million rural residents that currently do not have access to broadband. The hope is that by the end of the five years, other companies will have taken up Microsoft’s white spaces business plan to reach the approximately 22 million other unserved rural Americans.

The TV white spaces are channels in the VHF and UHF bands that are unoccupied by broadcast stations. Because those spaces are low in the electromagnetic spectrum, broadband signals potentially could travel long distances from a base station – 10 miles or perhaps more in some areas. Garnett predicted that white spaces will operate beside other wireless services to ensure coverage. “Different frequency bands complement each other to reach different customers,” he said.

Long-term, he said that Microsoft has no interest in operating wireless broadband networks. The company’s main interest is in opening markets, getting more people (in the United States and internationally) online, especially to use Microsoft cloud computing services.


NRTC CEO Tim Bryan summarized some of the major themes of TechConnect during an opening statement on Wednesday morning. Certainly, one of the themes was the wide breadth of NRTC technologies to serve rural America, from broadband to wireless to smart grid and many others. The evolution of technology is binding many of these technologies together. “Data is king,” Bryan said, noting how so many technologies today depend on data management.

Along the same lines, technology evolution is leading to a convergence of rural electric and telco interests. “Fiber design and deployment for both telcos and electrics … Let’s look at smart grid networks. They need a broadband backbone. They need smart services,” Bryan said. “NRTC is not two completely siloed companies – one that goes away and focuses on telcos and one that goes away and focuses on electrics. It’s really about a continuum of services. That really is what NRTC is today.”


Does a very large investor-owned utility in California have anything in common with rural electric cooperatives from the rest of the country. Ron Litzinger, chairman and president of Edison Electric came to find out by giving a keynote presentation at TechConnect.

Edison Energy is the parent company of NRTC’s solar power partner, SoCore Energy. He described a California regulatory environment which has pushed for solar and other alternative energy deployments at a faster rate than most of the nation. But it has not hurt the electric business.

Like cooperatives, he has found that customers are interested in clean energy and are demanding it. At the same time, overall demand for energy has dropped in recent years. After near record demand a decade ago, load levels dropped dramatically during the 2008-9 recession. Once the recession ended, however, demand never recovered.

Technology is contributing to continued lower demand. Utilities save energy by using the smart grid two-way communications to support demand management and analytics programs. Litzinger said he is a reformed sceptic concerning new battery technologies for energy storage to complement alternative energy programs. He also pointed to distributed generation technology, which allows consumers to sell back energy into the system from their rooftop solar cells.

These technologies contribute to a smaller, more efficient grid. Litzinger said that Edison now only generates about 20 percent of its own energy. The rest now comes from wholesale sources or distributed energy systems.


Be sure to visit NRTC’s social media sites for more TechConnect coverage. On our Twitter feed, you’ll find photos and information from NeoNova internet services and Exede satellite broadband breakout sessions.

Look for images from the Telispire breakout session on Facebook.


TechConnect participants were in a festive mood at the end of Wednesday sessions. They repaired to Villa Ospro, one of the cottages on Jekyll Island where some of the richest families of a century ago would stay to relax in high society. Today the cottage serves as a popular site for weddings and other gatherings, such as the TechConnect dinner and reception. (Villa Ospro also supposedly is one of the most haunted houses on the island, although nobody at the dinner reported any paranormal guests.)

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