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Microsoft’s Bid to Connect Rural America: Send Out Internet in between TV Signals

It’s cheaper than many alternatives, but broadcasters aren’t thrilled at the prospect.

Google has balloons, Facebook has drones, SpaceX has satellites. But Microsoft has a rather more humble plan to overcome the digital divide and take Internet to the sticks.

Bloomberg reports that the company will announce a new initiative Tuesday to beam data into rural communities by inserting it into unused parts of the TV spectrum. The idea is fairly simple: TV channels are broadcast with small gaps between them, known as white space, to avoid interference, and Microsoft (50 Smartest Companies 2017) plans to simply load it with broadband data.

The company plans to enter into collaborations with local telecom companies on 12 projects in 12 states over the next year. Its larger vision: to provide two million people in the U.S. with broadband by 2022. The company says it sees the program as a “civic investment,” but, like all other tech companies racing to offer Internet connections, it will be hoping to tap new customers, too.

To make use of the white space, a base station that transmits signals of the right frequency is required, along with matching antennas on homes, which are hooked up to modems instead of TVs. Because TV signals can travel up to 13 kilometers, it’s easy to blanket large areas using the approach.

It’s also fairly cheap, because of the relatively simple infrastructure required. According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft estimates that it would be possible to connect rural America using white space for $15 billion; it would cost up to $65 billion if fiber were used. There are trade-offs, though: a trial of the concept in southern Virginia tops out at download rates of 10 megabytes per second.

The idea of loading data into slices of TV spectrum was first approved by the Federal Communications Commissions back in 2008, though the technology has yet to be widely adopted in America. Microsoft has, however, already tested the approach in several African countries, as well as Jamaica, Uruguay, the Philippines, and Bhutan.

Even if the white-space initiative proves popular with Americans seeking an Internet connection, not everyone is happy with the idea. The National Association of Broadcasters tells the Wall Street Journal that it’s worried about the scheme interfering with TV broadcasts. But hey, there’s always Netflix, right?

(Read more: Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, “Microsoft Starts Slashing African Internet Prices with White-Space Networks,” “The Coming Wireless Revolution,” “The Unacceptable Persistence of the Digital Divide”)

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