The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Microsoft wants to bring 2 million rural Americans online by 2022

Microsoft’s ambitious broadband Internet plan, the Rural Airband Initiative, will launch in 12 states at first. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Placeholder while article actions load

Microsoft is aiming to bring broadband Internet to millions of rural Americans within the next five years through what is now unused TV spectrum, the company announced Tuesday.

Microsoft’s ambitious plan, dubbed the Rural Airband Initiative, will begin in 12 states, where the company said it will invest in broadband connectivity alongside local telecom services. One of the partner telecom companies is CenturyLink, which is working on a broadband project in eastern Washington state, said Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith in an interview.

Microsoft said that it does not intend to enter the telecom business itself or directly profit from the initiative. Instead, every dollar Microsoft earns from revenue-sharing with telecom operators at least for the first five years will be reinvested to fund additional broadband coverage, Smith said.

The strategy of turning to unused TV spectrum, or white space, to expand high-speed Internet access is not new to Microsoft, which has long sought to use vacant airwaves to provide cheap, wireless broadband. The company said that it decided to use the unused TV spectrum instead of fiber-optic cables or fixed wireless technology, such as 4G, because it is significantly cheaper.

Microsoft’s announcement comes at a time when other technology companies are developing ways to deliver Internet connectivity to tens of millions of people living in rural areas in the United States and other underserved markets. According to Microsoft, there are 23.4 million rural Americans living without high-speed Internet access. Google and Facebook have both sought to explore the use of drones, lasers and satellite technology to bring connectivity to the developing world. Facebook launched its initiative to connect the nearly 5 billion people around the world that don’t have access to affordable Internet connections.

Microsoft’s plan would try to bring broadband Internet to 2 million people in rural areas of the United States by July 2022.

But some experts say that Microsoft’s strategy may not be the best way to go about expanding Internet access to others.

“We think increasing rural broadband is a good idea but not the way Microsoft is proposing it,” said Dennis Wharton,  executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters. “They are making a lot of wild promises. Their white-space idea has been around for over a decade and has proven to be a compete, abject failure.”

He also argued that Microsoft was seeking a free government handout to use the spectrum rather than bidding for airwaves through the Federal Communications Commission’s incentive auction.

In his remarks at a Washington event Tuesday, Smith acknowledged the pushback from broadcasters. “We need to spend more time talking together,” he said.

Others praised the initiative. Microsoft’s plan represents the culmination of a decade of advocacy, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the consumer group Public Knowledge.

Feld estimated that it would cost “a couple million” dollars in direct Microsoft investment to bring 2 million Americans online. That number is grounded in Microsoft’s experience running pilot projects around the world involving TV white spaces, mostly in Africa and Asia.

Microsoft said that the total cost of eliminating the rural broadband gap using TV white spaces and other technologies would fall between $8 billion and $12 billion. But Smith declined to say how much money Microsoft would be contributing.

During his presentation at the event, Smith held up several prototype devices that looked like regular WiFi routers, but they had been configured to work with the TV white-space spectrum. A base station working on a single channel can transfer data at 25 Mbps out to a range of 1 kilometer, according to Smith. But by combining multiple channels, the same device can handle throughput of 400 Mbps. The router-type device could then pair with a dongle that consumers stick into their PCs.

While such equipment may cost hundreds of dollars today, Smith said, eventually Microsoft hopes that the price may fall to the point where Internet providers simply give it away to consumers as part of their service.

The company plans to have pilot programs up and running within the next year in Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, Georgia, New York and Maine.