Microsoft proposes $10bn program to bring broadband to rural America through TV white spaces [Update]

Over 23 million people living in rural areas across the United States still have no access to high-speed internet services. That's a problem that Microsoft wants to help solve by proposing a $10 billion program to boost availability of broadband services in poorly connected areas of the US.

Microsoft's proposal involves the use of TV 'white spaces' to deliver broadband internet over unused broadcast frequencies. Microsoft has been working for several years on using spare white space spectrum to deliver low-cost broadband connectivity to rural locations, having successfully launched such networks in Africa. In 2015, the company announced a collaboration with India's government to bring low-cost white space broadband to 500,000 villages across the country.

In the US, Microsoft envisages a similar partnership between the public and private sectors, with funding from government and companies. Today, Microsoft President Brad Smith will call for a five-year program of investment from businesses, matched by federal and state grants.

He told The Seattle Times that Microsoft will provide the technology for the Rural Airband Initiative, and will make investments to expand coverage to some of those areas that are lacking in connectivity. He said that Microsoft's own investments aim to connect 2 million more people to high-speed internet services by 2022. While he didn't specify exactly how much Microsoft will be committing to the project, he did say it would be a "very substantial" amount.

Smith also explained that Microsoft plans to recover its investment by taking a share of the revenue from those future broadband services it helps to build. Microsoft hopes to attract other major tech companies to join the program by allowing them to use its 39 white space patents on their own US rural broadband projects.

The high cost of building the infrastructure needed to connect users has left a significant gap between connectivity in urban areas and in more remote parts of the US. "We have not seen the market or the public sector really effectively fill this gap," Smith said, but Microsoft hopes to have projects up and running in 12 states by next year. It's already established a small-scale deployment in parts of Virginia, in partnership with nonprofit organization Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities.

Microsoft insists that TV white spaces offer a more affordable solution to bring high-speed web access to rural areas, compared with other technologies. By establishing a strong partnership between business and government in the United States, Microsoft hopes that substantial progress will finally be made to help bridge that gap for the 23.4 million people still waiting for reliable high-speed internet access.

Source: The Seattle Times

Update: Microsoft has now published two videos showcasing its Rural Airband Initiative:

In a blog post, Brad Smith said: "The time is right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious but achievable goal – to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years by July 4, 2022."

Smith also said that "the total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap falls into a range of $8 to $12 billion", which he claimed is around 80% cheaper than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and over 50% cheaper than the cost of using other wireless technologies like 4G.

He added that the 12 states in which Microsoft aims to launch its TV white spaces broadband pilot projects over the next twelve months are:

  • Arizona
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Smith said the key to Microsoft's success with the Rural Airband Initiative will be to "stimulate private sector investment and combine this with targeted and efficient public-sector support."

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