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Microsoft enables free wireless internet for Virginia’s rural students

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Microsoft has launched a new “Homework Network,” offering wireless internet access to students in rural Virginia for the first time. Set to be made available to thousands of school-age children within Charlotte and Halifax counties, the wireless initiative makes use of free white space parts of the wireless spectrum, making it possible to offer the service for free.

White space is the designation of gaps in the the wireless spectrum which sit between existing broadcast bands. Often unused, the Homework Network leverages that space to extend existing wireless access from local schools to the wider communities. The technology uses a connection between base stations installed on towers or near fiber-connected schools, which link up with outdoor antennas attached to students’ homes.

Launched in collaboration between Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative and the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities group, the network is being installed by local service provider, B2X Online. It’s able to cover large geographic areas without much infrastructure, despite the hilly and forested local terrain.

So far 100 homes have been tested as part of a pilot scheme. Now the plan is to install it in a thousand homes by the end of the year. That should give around 3,000 students access to the high-speed wireless internet.

Microsoft stated that it hopes the FCC can allocate white space like this to local wireless internet initiatives across the country, but especially in rural communities where access to high-speed internet is far from common, if not impossible.

As it stands, some 5 million homes in the United States are said to be lacking fast internet access (as per MSPowerUser), which Microsoft and others claim leaves students behind when it comes to research and learning outside of school. That so-called “homework gap” is something it wants to close, to ensure that rural students have just as much access to information as those in more built up areas.

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