Many brands look for the white space opportunities to grow their businesses. Microsoft is literally looking to white space to grow its business.
The inspiration: the 24 million Americans living in rural communities who lack Internet access. Microsoft is aiming to change that with a plan that will take unused television broadcasting frequencies and put them to use for broadband.
Called white spaces technology, the unused television stations are found on the dial all across the U.S., no matter how populated an area. Internet access, however, is spotty or non-existent in many areas because cable and telco operators don’t feel the need to build out infrastructure to serve small numbers of people, despite cajoling from consumers and officials.
Microsoft aims to solve these dilemmas with a big plan. In the US, it’s looking to provide broadband service to two million people in primarily rural areas across 12 states, including Kansas, New York, Virginia, and Arizona in the next five years.
And it’s not just doing this in the US, but worldwide in markets including Africa and Jamaica, arguing that its solution is better than Google’s balloon-powered Internet Project Loon and Facebook’s solar-powered drones.
Given its goal of expanding broadband to communities that can use it for education, telemedicine, businesses and individuals, the project is being highlighted at Inspire, Microsoft’s annual worldwide partners conference taking place this week in Washington D.C.
In partnership with local start-ups, Microsoft is providing high speed, affordable Internet over vast distances using TV waves, or “white spaces”. Today, in rural Kenya, for example, entrepreneur Benson Maina uses this technology to operate an Internet café, where people can walk in, study and grow their businesses.
Its white spaces database offers consumers the ability to identify and access available unoccupied TV channels by given location, “creating premium wireless broadband broadcasting that has the ability to transmit over greater distances with increased coverage, significantly lower power consumption and reduced network and end-user costs.”
Microsoft President Brad Smith sees tapping white space as “the best solution for reaching over 80 percent of people in rural America who lack broadband today,” according to the New York Times.
Smith also said that the lack of information at the rural level during last year’s presidential election served as inspiration for the company to invest in supporting high speed Internet access via unused wireless channels. “I think last year’s election was a wake-up call,” he told NPR. “This is a step to serve them better.”
Microsoft and other companies have been testing how to use white space technology for more than a decade. The Microsoft 2009 Wi-Fi project in Redmond, Washington was one of the first TV White Spaces-based trials in the world. Later, a pilot project in North Carolina successfully tested the new digital broadband network and won regulatory approval, ushering TV White Spaces into wireless broadcasting in the US.
As it continues to refine the technology to enable this, Microsoft will need to work closely with state and federal regulators in order to get access to those unused channels.
Also, that aren’t many devices currently that actually work with white-space technology. Those that do exist tend to be a little more expensive.
“White spaces has tremendous opportunity to help with broadband coverage in rural areas, but it’s hard to justify the cost to device makers who don’t see economies of scale in rural areas,” Information Technology & Innovation Foundation analyst Doug Brake told the Times.
What’s more, the intended parties not using the channels aren’t thrilled. Broadcasters’ lobbyists claim that using white spaces will interfere with content being shown on nearby TV channels. America’s National Association of Broadcasters has already filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission as it wants to retain control over that spectrum, even if it’s not using it.
Smith isn’t worried, telling NPR he’s confident the federal government will green light the US proposal. “While one should always hesitate to be optimistic about anything in our nation’s capital these days, I do think that there is a cause for optimism around this,” he said.
One factor in their favor—the underserved American consumers who need rural broadband built out, along with small Internet service providers at the ready to help. Below, hear more from Microsoft GM of Technology Policy Paul Mitchell: