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Microsoft Is Bringing Affordable Broadband Internet to Rural America

All it takes is some unused space.

Christianna ReedyJuly 13th 2017

Going the Extra Mile

At the historic Willard Hotel where a little over 100 years ago Alexander Graham Bell demoed the coast-to-coast telephone call, Microsoft announced on Monday its latest effort to bring internet access to American rural areas. The project makes use of unused television broadcast channels — which are called “white spaces.”

Back in 2010, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted rules that opened up TV white spaces for broadband use. “Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this spectrum, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users,” Brad Smith, the company’s president, wrote in a press release.

Image credit: Microsoft
Image Credit: Microsoft

Now, through Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative, the tech giant aims to open up broadband access to 2 million people in rural areas in America by 2022. Microsoft has 12 partners working in 12 states — including Arizona, Kansas, New York, and Virginia — for its TV White Spaces projects, which will be up and running in the next 12 months.

This project will provide rural Americans with internet that is a fifth of the cost of fiber cable-based internet and about half the cost of 4G networks.

Bridging the Digital Divide

After the United Nations declared internet access as a basic human right, a number of tech industry heavyweights have stepped up to the task of bringing internet connectivity to the world’s remote areas. There are several other similar initiatives to bring internet access to all of North America, including a couple in New York and Canada.

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Social media giant Facebook has been working on its Aquila project for the past two years. The idea is to beam internet to far flung areas using Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila drones, which recently completed a second successful test flight.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is approaching the problem with a different strategy. The plan is to improve internet access around the world by launching 4,000 satellites in orbit. SpaceX completed its applications to the FCC for this global internet network back in November 2016. This plan seems to have inspired satellite internet startup OneWeb — backed by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, Qualcomm, and Airbus — which would launch 720 satellites to build a global wireless internet network.

It seems unthinkable that in such a day and age, where internet is available even through your smartphones and wearable gadgets, there are still 4 billion people who lack such access. Hopefully, efforts like Microsoft’s will soon bridge this information divide.

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