New tech could solve rural internet access problem

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Hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans could soon get cheap, fast internet access from the unused television channels flying overhead but there is still some uncertainty created by bureaucrats in Washington. Image from Microsoft's YouTube channel

Illinois’ rural areas are lacking in internet coverage more so than other states.

1.2 million, or 9 percent, of Illinoisans don’t have access to broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Fifty-six percent of rural Illinoisans, 770,000, don’t have broadband connectivity. This is significantly higher than the national average of 40 percent.

But technology that uses over-the-air signals that aren’t used for television anymore could solve that problem. Microsoft’s Airband Initiative has connected communities in places like rural southern Virginia, even the African country of Namibia, with its Rural Airband Initiative. It works by utilizing unused frequencies, or whitespace, to transfer information from a provider to the consumer.

“Theoretically, it will give you 15-20 Mbps on a 20 Hz channel,” said Dr. Apurva N. Mody, president of the WhiteSpace Alliance. “That much higher than the rates many are getting right now.”

Other technology offers broadband in rural areas but it’s often unrealistically expensive.

Common broadband connections in rural Illinois are direct subscriber link, or DSL, offering up to 6 Mbps, or satellite broadband offering just 2 Mbps.

By contrast, urban areas with cable internet connectivity can reach speeds of up to 2 Gbps, or 2,000 Mbps.

“There are folks living in the Oshana District in the northern part of Namibia up against the Angola border who have greater broadband access than folks living in rural Illinois,” said Paul Garnett, senior director of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative. “That’s not acceptable.”

Garnett said the technology can offer up to 29 Mbps using two channels but new advancements could increase speeds.

The Airband Initiative, launched last July, plans to partner with businesses to offer the technology with the goal of connecting two million rural Americans to broadband by 2022.

Microsoft President Brad Smith said last July that the FCC would have to ensure nationwide access of three of the low-frequency channels for unlicensed use.

“This will help stimulate investment by hardware companies to produce the needed chips for new devices at a higher scale and lower cost,” Smith said.

“What we’re really asking the FCC to do is to create a nationwide market for TV white space technology so that folks in rural America can take advantage of the scale that it would create,” Garnett said.

llinois lawmakers are pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner to include in his budget spending on faster internet access for rural schools. Garnett said the connections via the schools could serve as a base for broadcasting the internet signal out to rural residents.

Mody said last year’s government auction of some of the spectrum created uncertainty. Now that the auction is over with a significant amount of spectrum unsold, he said the technology should become more prevalent.

“2018 will be the year where this takes off,” he said.

Image Caption: Hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans could soon get cheap, fast internet access from the unused television channels flying overhead but there is still some uncertainty created by bureaucrats in Washington.

  • Image from Microsoft’s YouTube channel

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