Microsoft today announced a project to bring broadband internet access to rural parts of the U.S. using TV white spaces, unlicensed and unused spectrum. Microsoft President Brad Smith unveiled details about the initiative at a Tuesday event in Washington, D.C. as a way to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas.
Microsoft’s ambitious plan, dubbed the Rural Air-band Initiative, will begin in 12 states, where the company said it will invest in broadband connectivity alongside local telecom services. The company said that it does not intend to enter the telecom business itself or profit directly from the initiative. Instead, Microsoft said it will supply the upfront capital required to expand broadband coverage, then recoup that cost by sharing in the revenue with local operating partners.
The company is calling for a combination of private and public investments to get about 2 million rural Americans online in the next five years. Microsoft plans to partner with telecommunications companies that serve rural counties in 12 states: Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Washington, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, New York and Maine. It’s also asking for regulatory support from the Federal Communications Commission.
Mr. Smith will also urge President Donald Trump and his administration to ensure that unlicensed white space is available in all U.S. markets. “As a country, we should not settle for an outcome that leaves behind more than 23 million of our rural neighbors,” Smith wrote in a blog post.
“To the contrary, we can and should bring the benefits of broadband coverage to every corner of the nation,” he added. Smith said the TV white spaces provides powerful bandwidth to allow wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees.
“Today, 34 million Americans still lack broadband internet access, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a 25 Mbps connection,” Smith posted. “Of these, 23.4 million live in rural parts of our country. People who live in these rural communities increasingly are unable to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities enjoyed by their urban neighbors.” Smith said Microsoft wants to eliminate the rural broadband gap by July 4, 2022.
“Our goal is to serve as a catalyst for market investments by others in order to reach additional rural communities,” he stated in his blog post.
Microsoft company faces many hurdles with the technology. For one, few manufacturers are making devices compatible with white-spaces technology, and some devices that can be used with the technology cost more than $1,000 each. The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, said that only 800 devices that worked with white-spaces technology had been registered with regulators.
“White spaces has tremendous opportunity to help with broadband coverage in rural areas, but it’s hard to justify the cost to device makers who don’t see economies of scale in rural areas,” said Doug Brake, a senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a research organization that is sponsored by tech companies including Microsoft.
Mr. Smith said that he would demonstrate four devices that work with white-space technology at Tuesday’s event, adding that prices for such gadgets would fall below $200 by next year.
Another challenge is a battle with television broadcasters who have long argued that devices on the unused airwaves can interfere with the broadcasts run on neighboring channels. This week, the National Association of Broadcasters filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission arguing against Microsoft’s request for one nationwide channel to be set aside for white-spaces use.
“Microsoft has been making promises about white-spaces technology for well over a decade,” Patrick McFadden, an associate general counsel for the association, wrote in comments to the commission. “At what point do we finally conclude that the white spaces project is a bust?”