Microsoft recently unveiled its plan to close the rural-urban broadband gap with “Airband,” a technology that delivers broadband through empty radiofrequency. Airband will bring internet service to rural communities in six different states, a move widely seen as the first major investment in TV white space broadband.
Airband solves a substantial investment barrier for rural broadband by reducing cable infrastructure costs. With cheaper internet access, the 23 million Americans who currently don’t have internet access should shrink. So will the rural-urban broadband gap. Pew Research surveys show that 63% of rural adults subscribe to home broadband, which is 10% less likely than urban adults (73%).
Cable broadband is the primary source by which Americans access the internet, but it is unavailable in many sparsely populated parts of the country. It involves billions of miles of underground copper and fiber optic wires that connect the internet backbone to homes. When more people live in a fixed area, each unit of cable reaches more subscribers, hauling in more revenue. Communities with low population density sometimes lack cable infrastructure because there are too few subscribers to justify the many miles of cable necessary to reach them. Fiber optic cable can cost up to $30,000 per mile in rural areas.
Airband circumvents the fixed costs of installing cable in uncrowded areas by delivering broadband connectivity through the air with unused radiofrequency spectrum. All that Airband requires is existing television broadcast infrastructure, local base stations, and receiver devices that users plug into their computers. Almost all American communities have available TV broadcast.
Unused radiofrequency spectrum, known as “white space,” is particularly advantageous for communities with population densities of 2 to 200 people per square mile. Airband would cover about 80% of Americans who lack internet access. Broadcast stations will be able to deliver Airband over radio waves that penetrate almost any structure in the way. The involved infrastructure at this density will deliver profitable margins to local telecom and internet service providers.
Microsoft’s Airband investment will pay for the fixed capital costs required by local telecom firms to deliver Airband. These firms will offer Airband services to residents in chosen communities at historically low costs for rural regions. Airband costs about 80% less than cable broadband and 50% less than wireless LTE service. Firms will pay a portion of their Airband revenues to Microsoft to account for its investment over time.
Microsoft’s interest in providing unconnected Americans with internet service is to fill the gaping employment void in technology jobs. By 2020, there will be one million more tech jobs than available applicants. Providing more Americans with internet will teach more people the valuable, high demand tech skills that employers seek. Tech companies, Microsoft included, would more adequately provide the services we need with fuller employment.
One barrier Airband faces is a pending decision on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) docket to expand reserved radiofrequency white space from two channels to three. Three channels would ensure nationwide access to white space services where they are cost effective. FreedomWorks submitted comments to the FCC on this issue, and has written frequently about the mechanics and benefits of TV white space broadband. Previous writings on TV white space tech are available by clicking here and here.
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