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Microsoft Plans to Use Empty TV Airwaves to Beam Internet in Rural US


Microsoft is looking to turn ordinary school buses into Internet-enabled hotspots, in an experiment that’s aimed at helping students in rural Michigan do their homework.

The company wants to use empty TV airwaves to beam high-speed Internet signals to buses in Hillman, Michigan, as they travel to and from school, according to regulatory filings submitted Wednesday to the Federal Communications Commission.

“The proposed deployment would help . . . by providing high-speed wireless Internet access on school buses as they complete their morning and afternoon routes,” the filing reads. “This will allow students without suitable connections at home to complete assignments that require broadband Internet access while they are on their way to and from school.”

Microsoft needs special government permission for the demo, because it plans to operate wireless equipment at a power level that could otherwise interfere with other communications. But, it said, the equipment will shut off automatically if the buses stray outside of the designated test area.

Hillman is a community of roughly 700 people, according to census figures. Of the region’s three satellite Internet providers, only one offers services that meet the federal definition of broadband. And cable Internet is virtually nonexistent in the area.

Partnering with a regional Internet provider to place broadband base stations along the bus routes, Microsoft said it plans to install special radio antennas on the buses that can communicate with the base stations over the empty gaps between TV channels. If approved, the project would become the company’s eighth pilot for the so-called “TV white spaces” technology in as many months.

Other regions in which Microsoft has launched experiments include Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Virginia and Washington state spanning a range of applications that covers farming and education.

Microsoft’s TV white spaces initiative has attracted opposition from broadcasters, who argue the computing giant has circumvented the conventional process for securing access to airwaves. Rather than purchase the rights to airwaves at auction as many other companies do, the National Association of Broadcasters has alleged, Microsoft has simply requested that the FCC set aside special channels for its new technology.

Microsoft has said that a mix of its TV white spaces technology, satellite Internet and other connection methods could prove economically transformative for rural Americans who lack reliable access to broadband.