In the same hotel where Alexander Graham Bell once demoed coast-to-coast telephone calls, Microsoft will announce plans for a new white space internet service on Tuesday. This ludicrous technology sends broadband internet wirelessly over the unused channels of the television spectrum. It’s also ingenious.
Understandably, you probably have some questions about this postmodern concept. If you were born before 1985, you might remember the days when TV signals floated through thin air, delivering episodes of Married With Children to homes across America without any wires. Those TV signals still exist, and in between the channels, there’s unused spectrum called white space. Enterprising scientists have figured out how to turn that white space into a sort of super wi-fi and broadcast internet service to a many miles-wide radius. What’s extra special is that, unlike wi-fi or cellular service, the stronger TV signal can penetrate buildings and other obstacles. This makes it ideal for rural areas, where conventional broadband service is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive.
As Tuesday’s announcement makes clear, Microsoft scientists have been on the bleeding edge of white space research. The increasingly hip company intends to drop $10 billion to launch a new white space service in 12 states, including New York and Virginia, connecting an estimated two million Americans to the internet, The New York Times reports. This plan ought to please FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who’s made expanding high speed internet access a priority since he took the helm of the agency. Then again, many believe that Pai’s mission amounts to an empty promise, one that stands to line the pockets of big telecom companies instead of actually helping rural America. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of beans.
Exciting as it may sound, Microsoft’s new white space initiative does face some tricky challenges. Infrastructure is a big one. While white space internet service does utilize the very familiar TV spectrum, the ability to connect to the internet requires some special hardware. On the regional level, we’ll need to build special base stations, equip them with white space antennas, and supply them with electricity. (Solar power is an option for base stations that are off the electric grid.) On the local level, white space customers will need to access to special receivers that can turn the white space signal into something their computer understands, like wi-fi. All of this will cost money.
Good news is Microsoft has a lot of money. It’s not yet clear how much the company will charge for the new service, but presumably, it will cover the expense of building the new base stations. Customers will have to buy the hardware for their homes at a sobering price of $1,000 or more, but Microsoft says these costs will come down to $200 per device by next year. That’s not nothing for a lot of rural Americans, and then they’ll have to pay for access — a fee that Microsoft says will be “price competitive” with regular old cable internet (again: not cheap).
But hey, progress matters. While this white space internet technology has been in development for years, Microsoft is set to become the first major company to bring it to the masses, and that might just mean others will follow. Far-future solutions for rural broadband access like Facebook’s laser-powered drones, Google’s silly balloons, or Elon Musk’s pie-in-the-sky satellites remain theoretical for the time being, while white space already works. And soon, it could be working in a middle-of-nowhere near you.