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Microsoft’s “Whitespaces” to provide rural areas with high-speed internet

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

To be successful in the digital age, access to high-speed broadband internet is a necessity — and not just for playing video games. Billions depend on the internet for healthcare, agriculture, education, and tasks in everyday life. Unfortunately, approximately 34 million Americans still don’t have access to broadband; 23.4 million of those live in rural areas.

President Brad Smith of Microsoft wants to change that.

In a speech last Tuesday, sponsored by the Media Institute in Washington, D.C., Smith addressed this pertinent issue, stating, “This is an issue that is near and dear to our hearts at Microsoft, broadband connectivity for this nation.”

Microsoft’s solution utilizes the unused spectrum in Ultra High Frequency (UHF) television bands, otherwise known as the “TV white spaces” spectrum or “Whitespaces,” in combination with fixed wireless and satellite coverage, to provide high-speed, broadband internet. Amazingly, Whitespaces users can utilize wifi an entire kilometer away from the source.

Over the past 15 years, Microsoft has tested Whitespaces in 20 countries, connecting 185,000 people — and the results are already paying off. Since the Whitespaces connection was established, students at Gakawa Secondary School in Kenya have improved their scores on all subjects of the Kenya National exam.

Microsoft’s goal is to fill the broadband gap in rural America in the next five years, and they are asking for $8-to-$12 billion for the technology to make that goal a reality. Their target date is July 4th, 2022. In a blog post, Microsoft asserts that Whitespaces technology is roughly 80 percent cheaper than using only fiber cable, and 50 percent cheaper than using 4G fixed wireless technology, dramatically cutting costs.

“Anytime you can come to Washington and turn a $50 billion problem into a $10 billion problem, it is an unusual day in Washington,” Smith proclaimed.

In order to undertake this challenge, Microsoft launched the Rural Broadband Initiative, which aims to connect 2 million people in 10 years. Microsoft will directly invest in telecoms companies, but doesn’t expect to reap a profit, opting instead for a revenue share to recoup costs.

As a part of this nonprofit strategy, Microsoft will license its 39 patents in Whitespaces, and license them royalty free to the world.

“Directly, Microsoft’s only going to solve 10% of the problem, but what we hope to do as a company is to be a catalyst so that we can all learn from each other to work on the rest,” Smith explained.

According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 5 million households with school-age children don’t have access to internet, which is holding back students’ education all across the nation. In addition, advances in telemedicine have the capability to provide medical care to those in remote, rural areas lacking medical professionals. Without internet access, Americans lose an invaluable wealth of the world’s information online.

In a digital world, closing the “broadband gap” is of the utmost importance to America’s national interest, and Whitespaces technology may do just that.

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