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Microsoft to Harness Unused TV Channels to Help Get More of Rural America Online

The Microsoft offices in Midtown Manhattan. The company wants to use white-space technology to help get more of rural America online.
GEORGE ETHEREDGE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Silicon Valley has dreamed up hot air balloons, drones and constellations of mini-satellites to connect the world to the internet. Now Microsoft is adding its own moonshot to solve the digital divide into that mix.

The software giant plans to announce on Tuesday that it is harnessing the unused channels between television broadcasts, known as white spaces, to help get more of rural America online. In an event at the Willard Hotel in Washington, where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated a coast-to-coast telephone call a century ago, Microsoft plans to say that it will soon start a white-spaces broadband service in 12 states including Arizona, Kansas, New York and Virginia to connect two million rural Americans in the next five years who have limited or no access to high-speed internet.

In an interview, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, said 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 grappled with uneven internet access. Many remote and less-populated areas have had particular trouble obtaining fast internet service because providers often cannot justify the cost of building out infrastructure to isolated locales with few people to serve.

White-spaces technology has emerged as a potential solution to that problem. Since 2008, Microsoft and other companies have been involved in tests of television white spaces for internet access.

The technology is sometimes known as “super Wi-Fi” because it behaves like regular Wi-Fi but uses low-powered television channels to cover far greater distances than wireless hot spots. It is also more powerful than cellular service because the frequencies can penetrate concrete walls and other obstacles.

Promoting the white-spaces technology could reap rewards for tech companies: The remaining 24.3 million people in rural areas without internet are potential customers of cloud applications, search and other digital services.

To support the white-spaces plan, 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.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Cecilia Kang