Democracy Dies in Darkness


To get rural kids online, Microsoft wants to put Internet access on school buses

March 8, 2018 at 2:27 PM

(Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

Microsoft is looking to turn school buses into Internet-enabled hotspots in an experiment that’s aimed at helping students in rural Michigan do their homework.

The company wants to use empty TV airwaves to beam high-speed Internet signals to buses in Hillman, Mich., as they travel to and from school, according to regulatory filings submitted Wednesday to the Federal Communications Commission.

“The proposed deployment would help … by providing high-speed wireless Internet access on school buses as they complete their morning and afternoon routes,” the filing reads. “This will allow students without suitable connections at home to complete assignments that require broadband Internet access while they are on their way to and from school.”

Microsoft needs special government permission for the demo because it plans to operate wireless equipment at a power level that could otherwise interfere with other communications. But, it said, the equipment will shut off automatically if the buses stray outside the designated test area.

Related: [Microsoft wants to bring 2 million rural Americans online by 2022]

Hillman is a community of about 700 people, according to census figures. Of the region’s three satellite Internet providers, only one offers service that meets the federal definition of broadband. And cable Internet is virtually nonexistent in the area.

Partnering with a regional Internet provider to place broadband base stations along the bus routes, Microsoft said it plans to install special radio antennas on the buses that can communicate with the base stations over the empty gaps between TV channels. If approved, the project would become the company’s eighth pilot for the “TV white spaces” technology in as many months.

Other regions in which Microsoft has launched experiments include Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Virginia and Washington state — spanning a range of applications that covers farming and education.

Related: [SpaceX’s Internet satellites are part of a wave of new tech that could give you more choice in broadband providers]

Microsoft’s TV white spaces initiative has attracted opposition from broadcasters, who argue that the computing giant has circumvented the conventional process for securing access to airwaves. Rather than purchase the rights to airwaves at auction as many other companies do, the National Association of Broadcasters has alleged, Microsoft has simply requested that the FCC set aside special channels for its new technology.

Microsoft has said that a mix of its TV white spaces technology, satellite Internet and other connection methods could prove economically transformative for rural Americans who lack reliable access to broadband.

Brian Fung covers business and technology for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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