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Microsoft, Sacred Wind attack digital divide in rural NM

Sacred Wind Communications uses this solar-powered relay tower. The company is working with Microsoft to use “TV white spaces” to get broadband to underserved rural areas of New Mexico. (Courtesy of Sacred Wind)

Sacred Wind Communications uses this solar-powered relay tower. The company is working with Microsoft to use “TV white spaces” to get broadband to underserved rural areas of New Mexico. (Courtesy of Sacred Wind)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque-based Sacred Wind Communications is partnering with Microsoft Corp. to provide wireless broadband to remote New Mexico communities through unused TV spectrum.

Sacred Wind will install Microsoft technology to tap into “TV white spaces,” or unused UHF and VHF broadcast spectrum, to potentially provide high-speed internet for the first time to up to 40,000 rural households over the next eight years, Sacred Wind CEO John Badal told the Journal.

“This technology allows us to leap frog over older technologies to get broadband to more rural areas,” Badal said. “Microsoft’s equipment costs about the same as other technologies widely used today, but it has much farther reach. The radio waves travel longer distances, and they can go through thick foliage, penetrate walls and roll over hills.”

The Federal Communications Commission made UHF and VHF spectrum available for broadband several years ago. But new equipment to manage carrier-grade broadband signals with enough capacity to satisfy customers was needed by providers like Sacred Wind to tap into TV white spaces, Badal said.

With Microsoft equipment in hand, the availability of TV spectrum could now open a lot more rural communities to affordable, fixed wireless service.

“Those frequencies are being used in urban areas, but they’re unused and available where there are no local TV channels, which is most of rural America,” Badal said.

The partnership is part of the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which aims to expand broadband to 3 million unserved people by July 2022. Under the initiative, launched in July 2017, Microsoft has signed partnerships with local service providers in 16 states. That will grow to 25 states by year-end.

“The broadband gap is hindering tribal and rural communities from reaping the social and economic benefits that come with access to the internet,” said Shelley McKinley, Microsoft general manager of technology and corporate responsibility, in a prepared statement. “Our partnership with Sacred Wind Communications will bring reliable, high-speed Internet to underserved communities in New Mexico so that they can access the same opportunities as their urban counterparts.”

Sacred Wind will install transmitting microwave equipment on existing towers, and will also build a few new tower sites. It will attach receiving antennae on customer’s roofs.

Microsoft and Sacred Wind will share installation costs and revenue from the new service, Badal said.

Pricing has not been determined yet.

The technology will first be deployed in Grants, Milan, San Rafael, Yatahey and areas within the Navajo Nation’s Church Rock Chapter. Depending on success in that first-phase, which begins in late summer, the partners will expand service to more Navajo communities.

Sacred Wind, which launched in 2006, is the only private telecommunications firm in the country dedicated to providing services solely on tribal lands.

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