Microsoft has announced a new initiative aimed at eliminating the rural digital divide by bringing broadband Internet connectivity to two million Americans over the next five years.
To help the 23.4 million rural Americans who lack broadband, the Rural Airband Initiative will combine private-sector capital investments focused on expanding broadband coverage through new technologies with targeted and affordable public-sector support. In a blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith announced that the company "will invest in the upfront capital projects needed to expand broadband coverage, seek a revenue share from operators to recoup [its] investment, and then use these revenue proceeds to invest in additional projects to expand coverage further."
Based on a study (54 pages, PDF) conducted in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group, Microsoft argues that harnessing TV white spaces spectrum — the unused spectrum in UHF television bands — could be used to reach the 80 percent of rural Americans who live in communities with between two and two hundred people per square mile; that fixed wireless and limited fiber to the home could be used for areas with higher population density; and that satellite coverage could be used for areas with lower population density. Using this combination of technologies, Smith noted, would be roughly 80 percent cheaper than relying on fiber cable alone and 50 percent cheaper than fixed wireless technology. Microsoft plans to launch at least twelve pilot projects within a year using white spaces spectrum in twelve states — Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Through Microsoft Philanthropies, the initiative also will invest in digital skills training in newly connected communities, while Microsoft hopes to stimulate investment in the initiative by sharing what it learns with other broadband providers and providing royalty-free access to patents and sample source code it has developed.
To help ensure the success of the initiative, Smith called on the Federal Communication Commission to commit to making white spaces spectrum available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional spectrum set aside in smaller markets and rural areas; for federal and state infrastructure investments in rural broadband access to include targeted funds on a matching basis for capital investments; and for improved data collection with respect to rural broadband coverage.
According to the New York Times, the initiative faces a number of technology hurdles, including the limited availability of affordable devices compatible with white-spaces technology. "White spaces has tremendous opportunity to help with broadband coverage in rural areas," said Doug Brake, a senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which is supported in part by Microsoft, "but it's hard to justify the cost to device makers who don't see economies of scale in rural areas."