Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) wants to harness the unused channels between television broadcasts, known as white spaces, to provide more of rural America with high-speed internet access. The company aims to connect two million rural Americans to high-speed internet in the next five years. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, said in a statement that white spaces were “the best solution for reaching over 80 percent of people in rural America who lack broadband today.”
The United States has long struggled with uneven internet access. Many remote and less-populated areas have had trouble obtaining fast internet service because it is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Internet providers claim that they cannot justify the cost of building out infrastructure to isolated locales with small populations. There are currently about 24.3 million people in rural areas without internet who could be potential customers.
Microsoft and other companies have been testing using television white spaces for internet access since 2008. White spaces are the unused spectrum in between the channels. Scientists have figured out how to turn that white space into a sort of super wi-fi that can broadcast internet service over a radius of many miles. The technology uses low-powered television channels to cover far greater distances than wireless hot spots. The frequencies can penetrate concrete walls and other obstacles, making them more powerful than cellular service.
Microsoft plans to announce the initiative at an event at the Willard Hotel in Washington, where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated a coast-to-coast telephone call a century ago. The company plans to spend $10 billion starting a white-spaces broadband service in 12 states, including Arizona, Kansas, New York and Virginia. Microsoft plans on partnering with local internet service providers by investing some of the capital costs and then sharing in the revenue.
Microsoft is appealing to federal and state regulators to guarantee the use of unused television channels and investments in promoting the technology in rural areas. It is likely that the company will be granted the support it needs. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has made expanding high speed internet access a priority since he was appointed to the helm of the agency.
Television broadcasters have long argued that devices on the unused airwaves can interfere with the broadcasts run on neighboring channels. Few manufacturers are currently making devices compatible with white-spaces technology. According to the National Association of Broadcasters trade group, only 800 devices compatible with white-spaces technology had been registered with regulators.
The devices that are available are expensive, with some costing more than $1,000 each. To make white-spaces devices cheaper, Microsoft has opened its patents on the technology and is working with chip makers. Smith believes that prices for such gadgets would fall below $200 by next year, making them price competitive for people in urban areas.