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article imageMicrosoft uses TV signals to beam the web into rural America

By James Walker     Jul 11, 2017 in Technology
Microsoft has announced an initiative that aims to connect rural America to high-speed Internet. Unlike the wireless Internet efforts being pursued at companies including Facebook and Google, Microsoft plans to employ unused areas of the TV spectrum.
The plan was reported by Bloomberg today. The article claims Microsoft's "national strategy" will aim to bring rural areas in 12 U.S. states online within the next year. The wider initiative will extend until 2022 and involve partnership with other companies interested in closing the rural broadband divide.
Microsoft's efforts to bring the web to disconnected areas aren't as public or high-profile as those of its rivals. While Facebook and Google have been widely documenting their work with drones and balloons in developing regions, Microsoft has been keeping a lower profile. It's now going all-out in an effort to be the first tech firm to connect America's backyard.
The company's idea of using TV white space to broadcast Internet signals is a new concept. The system will insert digital data in the small gaps between TV broadcasts, making use of the "empty" space in the spectrum.
The system is relatively straightforward to setup. The TV base station and antennas on homes are modified with special transmitters and receivers that ensure Internet data is sent at the right frequency. The simplicity of the approach makes it 80 percent cheaper than laying fibre cables and 50 percent cheaper than setting up wireless networks.
A single TV base station can cover an area of around 13km. This allows Microsoft to connect an entire town or neighbourhood for relatively little expense. The Wall Street Journal claimed all of rural America could be connected for $15 billion. The cost of a nationwide fibre network is expected to be at least $65 billion.
There are a few problems with the approach though. Since the TV spectrum is backing the Internet signals, capacity is limited. In early trials in Virginia, the maximum speed of the network has proved to be 10Mbps. While this is regarded as an acceptable baseline speed today, the coming rise of 4K entertainment, connected smart devices and AI-powered edge computing will quickly pose a problem.
Microsoft has also faced staunch opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters, a TV trade group that includes Comcast, CBC, Walt Disney and others. They claim that Microsoft's plan to designate the airwaves for "free use," allowing it to use them for Internet access, is "nonsense" and would "threaten millions of viewers" with the loss of TV programs. The group said Microsoft should have formally bid to purchase portions of the spectrum during a recent federal auction.
More about Microsoft, Internet, Digital divide, Rural internet, Internet access
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