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Microsoft announces rural broadband initiative

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This July 3, 2014, file photo, shows the Microsoft Corp. logo outside the Microsoft Visitor Center in Redmond, Wash. Microsoft is announcing a project to bring broadband internet access to rural parts of the United States. Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a blog post that he plans to unveil details about the initiative at a July event in Washington, D.C. This July 3, 2014, file photo, shows the Microsoft Corp. logo outside the Microsoft Visitor Center in Redmond, Wash. Microsoft is announcing a project to bring broadband internet access to rural parts of the United States. Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a blog post that he plans to unveil details about the initiative at a July event in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Microsoft wants to extend broadband services to rural America by using the buffer zones separating individual television channels in the airwaves.

Microsoft plans to partner with rural telecommunications providers in 12 states, from the Dakotas and Arizona to a far eastern edge of Maine. The strategy calls for a combination of private and public investments and regulatory cooperation from the Federal Communications Commission to get about 2 million rural Americans connected to high-speed internet in the next five years.

Microsoft’s initiative, unveiled Tuesday, comes as policy makers struggle to extend high-speed internet services to rural areas, which cable and phone companies have often shunned as cost prohibitive. Getting more people connected in rural areas has been a priority President Donald Trump’s administration.

The National Association of Broadcasters dismissed the initiative as the “height of arrogance” for Microsoft to “demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on TV airwaves” in a recent FCC auction.

“Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming,” spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement.

Although the buffer zones, known as white spaces, are currently unused, Wharton said they are important for preventing adjacent channels from interfering with each other.

That’s less of a problem in most rural areas, said Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that includes Microsoft among its donors.

“In rural areas, there aren’t that many television broadcasters so there’s a lot of unused spectrum,” Brake said. “The real challenge is getting the number of users, the scale. Is there enough of a market for the device manufacturers to build these devices?”

To make it work, Microsoft says the FCC will have to guarantee that these buffer zones remain available nationwide — and make even more such zones available in rural areas.

Microsoft is already piloting its idea in a sparsely populated region of southern Virginia, where it’s providing $250,000 to the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. The South Boston, Virginia-based telecommunications provider will contribute another $250,000 and use a $500,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

Mid-Atlantic Broadband’s chief executive, Ted Deriso, said he reached out to Microsoft several years ago after seeing the Redmond, Washington, company deploy the technology in other parts of the world.

“We said, ‘Wow, the problems they’re trying to solve in rural parts of Africa are the same we have in rural Virginia, on the technology side,’” Deriso said.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is planning to visit his southern Virginia office on Tuesday to talk about the project, Deriso said.

“When you think of rural, you have a lot of trees, hills,” Deriso said. “You need a type of technology that can go longer distances and has better penetration. You’re trying to reach more customers without using a ton of equipment.”

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