Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Microsoft promises to harness unused TV channels to bring 'super wi-fi' to rural areas in 12 states

Microsoft map using June 2017 data from Federal Communications Commission
Microsoft says it will use the bandwidth from unused television channels, called white spaces, to deliver high-speed broadband to many of the 24 million rural Americans who lack fast internet access. The initial service will serve 12 states: Washington, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Virginia, New York and Maine, "to connect 2 million rural Americans in the next five years who have limited or no access to high-speed internet," Cecelia Kang reports for The New York Times.

Fast, reliable, affordable internet service has been a longtime problem in rural America. Internet service providers often can't justify the cost of building infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. Microsoft and other companies have been testing white spaces as an alternative since 2008. Microsoft President Brad Smith told Kang that white spaces were "the best solution for reaching over 80 percent of people in rural America who lack broadband today." For Microsoft's blog post, click here; for its white paper, here.

White spaces technology is sometimes called "super wi-fi" because it "behaves like regular wi-fi but uses low-powered TV channels to cover far greater distances than wireless hot spots, "up to 10 miles in rural areas," Jay Greene reports for The Wall Street Journal. "It is also more powerful than cellular service because the frequencies can penetrate concrete walls and other obstacles," Kang reports. Microsoft stands to profit from the service because Americans who have internet access are better positioned to buy Microsoft apps and products.

But the initiative has its challenges. TV broadcasters argue that white-space tech can interfere with broadcasts on neighboring channels. Also, not many manufacturers have devices compatible with white-space technology, and such devices cost upwards of $1,000. Only 800 such devices are registered in the U.S., according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Microsoft promises to roll out compatible devices that will cost under $200 by next year, Kang reports.

Some, including broadcasters who jealously guard their parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, remain skeptical. “Microsoft has been making promises about white-spaces technology for well over a decade,” Patrick McFadden, an associate general counsel for the NAB, wrote in a comment filed with the Federal Communications Commission. “At what point do we finally conclude that the white spaces project is a bust?”

Microsoft declined to say how much it will spend on the 12 projects, but "estimates it would cost $10 billion to $15 billion to connect rural America with broadband access using TV white spaces, compared with $15 billion to $25 billion using fixed wireless technology, and $45 billion to $65 billion running fiber-optic cable to homes," Greene reports.

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