Microsoft looks to white spaces for rural web

Jun 22, 2016, 4:11 PM EDT
(Source: faungg's photos/flickr)
(Source: faungg's photos/flickr)

Microsoft has taken somewhat of a lead on the development of white spaces — the spectrum that lies between frequency bands and which can be used for communication technology — in the U.S. and abroad. Most recently, the company filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for Special Temporary Authority (STA) to test sensors using white space device operations in certain bands to "determine their suitability for precision agriculture applications,” reports Fierce Wireless.

This effort is one of many Microsoft has made around the world to try to bring the use of white spaces onto to the mainstream telecommunications scene. The company continues to release grants to companies around the world to test rural internet capabilities including organizations in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia. Most recently, Microsoft provided a grant to Axiom Technologies in Washington County, Maine to provide internet access to three dozen rural homes. That fact provides some context of the scale of these rural web initiatives; they affect few people, but those in favor of building out unused frequencies see it as another way to try to connect the last billion people to the internet.

White spaces have been championed by some tech leaders and analysts as the way forward for connecting people in rural areas to the internet. As unused broadcasting frequencies in wireless spectrum, they can be used to provide connectivity. Microsoft is just one company that is a proponent of using these unused radio and TV frequencies to deliver internet. Over the years, the FCC has taken a minor interest in building out white spaces for web use. Some, largely rural, regions in the U.S. have conducted trials to see how to improve telecommunications networks using white spaces. In 2013, West Virginia University became the first U.S. university to employ white space to disseminate internet service. 

But not every government is in favor of employing these unused bands. Microsoft suffered a setback last week in India when the country’s Department of Telecommunications decided against allocating the 470-582 MHz spectrum band for the commercial deployment of TV white space — spectrum Microsoft had counted on using to expand telecom in India. 

White spaces also face regulatory obstacles as with most technologies, government lack of understanding of the tech inhibits its use. For now, Microsoft continues to take baby steps.