Microsoft to bridge digital divide with Airband: broadband access on white spaces

Microsoft plans to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban areas by driving a national initiative to bring high-speed internet to those in areas where current connection options are poor and few in number. To aid that effort, it is investing in technology that will leverage so-called white spaces in the spectrum, to provide solid wireless connections to rural communities.

White spaces are the unused frequencies allocated to various broadcasting networks that sit idle and arguably wasted. Microsoft wants to make use of them in the new program, called The Airband Initiative. It’s not the first time the company has looked at white space. Earlier in 2017, the company prototyped such a system with a “Homework Network” in rural Virginia, which brought high-speed internet to those who live near schools.

But that was just the start of Microsoft’s plans. Moving forward, it plans to expand this scheme to many more rural communities, fronting the costs for local telecommunications companies and then drawing some of the revenue from the service once it is up and running. Those funds will then, in turn, be reinvested in similar communities to continue the practice.

Microsoft chief legal officer Brad Smith made it clear that the company has no plans to enter the telecoms market, nor make a profit from these initiatives, according to WinSuperSite. Indeed, much of the project will be managed by Microsoft’s philanthropy arm, which will work in tandem with organizations like National 4-H Council to provide digital skill training to rural communities.

The software giant wants other companies to get involved. While Microsoft’s white-space internet plans will help reach as many as 2 million people by 2022, that is less than 10 percent of the current U.S. population who do not have access to high-speed internet. To that end, Microsoft is also calling on other large American tech companies to aid in the effort and ease people’s access to broadband services.

That could prove crucial, as the cost of compatible hardware with white-space technology is one of the largest hurdles, as The New York Times points out. Microsoft has already made big in-roads in this area, helping to lower the price of compatible hardware by as much as 80 percent in some cases.

Other plans will see Microsoft call on federal and local legislators to remove the red tape and encourage uptake by not only companies but communities too, who may as yet not understand the benefits white space internet access can grant. Helping smaller, local telecoms thrive in the hotly competitive industry could also go a long way to easing current issues with rural broadband connections.

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