Microsoft's Plan To Beam Internet Over TV Frequencies Is So Crazy It Might Work

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 today. This ludicrous technology sends broadband internet wirelessly over the unused channels of the television spectrum. It's also ingenious.

Image: Wikipedia

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 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 kilometres-wide radius. What's extra special is that, unlike Wi-Fi or mobile 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.

Image: Carlson Wireless

As today's announcement makes clear, Microsoft scientists have been on the bleeding edge of white space research. The increasingly hip company intends to drop $US10 billion ($13 billion) to launch a new white space service in 12 US 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 utilise 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.

The good news is Microsoft has a lot of money. It isn't 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 $US1000 ($1310) or more, but Microsoft says these costs will come down to $US200 ($262) per device by next year. That isn't nothing for a lot of people in rural areas, and then they will 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 such as 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.

[New York Times]



    Ok, so TV transmission is ONE WAY. Internet usually relies on 2 way communication. Downstream might work here, but how is upstream going to work? Consumers will need expensive transmitters at their homes to send communications back to the webs.

      You could send a request/acknowledge over your regular internet connection (e.g. ADSL) and get the receiving data via TV, so like a bridged connection? I dunno.

        Except they're talking rural so ADSL is likely of the table since they're talking long distances. So what connection are they going to use? Dialup?

        Not to mention if you have ADSL you'd just use ADSL unless the new solution was way faster and/or cheaper.

      Don't think of it as a TV transmission where the signals are going one way, think of it as how mobile phones work. There is two way transmission possible because the phones themselves have transmitters built into them and are communicating with the base stations of the telco.

      Similarly a consumer will need to have the transmitting hardware at their homes (as per the article) see here: Customers will have to buy the hardware for their homes at a sobering price of $US1000 ($1310) or more...

      With this hardware they can communicate two-way with the base stations and also communicate with regular devices on the 2.4GHz (and maybe 5GHz) spectrum (both open spectrums used for WiFi).

      You stick your arm out the window and point your remote control towards the nearest transmission tower.

    They've worked out how to transmit broadband through our electricity wires so this doesn't surprise me in the least. Like Supaflygy, i also would like to know how upstream would work with MS's idea.

      Read the article again, the customer will need special hardware costing up to $1000 or more. That's your upstream.

      It costs a lot because this would be the first commercial device that beams internet on TV frequencies. Think back to the first ever mobile phone that costs a fortune and bulky as Hulk.

    It won't work in Australia - we need all of our broadcast spectrum for shopping channels.

    Still, Microsoft will probably have this up and running before people in rural Australia get the NBN connected.

    Im pretty sure that telstra started planing a while ago to use the old shut of analog tv signals as there 5G network, for much faster mobile internet. I feel like Microsoft is behind here.

    Sounds like CSIRO's Ngara technology...

    Where do you think the frequency bands that allowed for 3G/4G came from... As new transmission technologies replace old it frees up the wasted spectrum spread needed for old analogue transmissions.
    There is nothing crazy about this, just a logical progression. By this time in the next decade it will be obsolete too once the Internet satellite constellation is up and running.

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