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Don’t take Internet access for granted

About 34 million Americans – 24 million of them in rural areas – are stuck in the parachute pants era, as far as high-speed Internet access is concerned.

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith in Washington, July 11, 2017, speaks about Microsoft's project to bring broadband internet access to rural parts of the United States. Photo Credit: AP / Carolyn Kaster

Most of us take high-speed Internet access for granted. It’s available at McDonald’s. But there are still tens of millions of people who don’t have access to it.

At home.

Some are still getting online – if they can get online at all – via dial-up modems.

Yes, really.

You’ve got mail!

About 34 million Americans – 24 million of them in rural areas – are stuck in the parachute pants era, as far as high-speed Internet access is concerned. This isolates them, makes it harder for them to access necessary information – including local government information – and puts them and their communities in a digital-age backwater.

The problem is that fast-forwarding to 2017 isn’t free. Infrastructure and technology costs money – and many of the affected communities haven’t got it.

They also can’t afford the taxes necessary to fund it.

Catch 22.

But there is a way around this dilemma that does not involve new taxes – or big ticket investment. It involves using what’s already in place – and not being used. Specifically, repurposing unused television bandwidth space in between broadcast channels.

Just three spaces, specifically – all of them in the 600 megahertz band.

These so-called “white spaces” are literally just sitting there – like railroad tracks without any trains running on them. The investment has already been made. Now it’s just a question of using what’s already there.

And already been paid for.

Existing network TV broadcasts would not be affected – and there would still be bandwidth available/set-aside on the spectrum for local, low-powered channels – such as those that provide coverage of local high school sports and so on.

Only some of the white spaces currently just sitting there would be used to transmit broadband – wirelessly – to anyone within range of the signal. If you can get The Andy Griffith Show on your tube TV via rabbit ear antennas, you could get high-speed broadband Internet on your flatscreen – and have access to Hulu and Amazon Prime and everything else the rest of the country already has access to.

Microsoft has developed the technology needed to make this happen – and has offered to license its use royalty-free, no new taxes (or fees) required, to localities and others willing to work collaboratively on the project.

Capital investment would be recouped via revenue sharing downstream, once things are up and running, from online ads, partnerships and so on.

The Internet giant realizes that getting people online is far more important than charging them to get online. Without broadband/high-speed access, it’s hard to shop online – or do anything online. Even loading an email can take seemingly forever, if you’re trying to do it via dial-up.

The rest of the ‘Net – the rest of the world – has moved on.

Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative is similar to the 1930s-era effort to get electricity to rural areas – only this time, it’s not the government that’s doing the heavy lifting – and it’s not taxpayers who are getting the bill.

The initial effort will fund 12 projects in 12 states over a 12 month period, with the goal of providing high-speed broadband to 2 million people not currently connected to the ‘Net at all. Microsoft hopes to close what company president Brad Smith calls the “Broadband Gap” by July 4, 2022 – a little over four years from now.

But before any of this can happen, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must authorize the use of the “white spaces” for this new purpose. There has been some opposition, most of it arising from a misunderstanding of what’s at issue.

To recap: The “white spaces” that would be given over to broadband are currently not being used for anything – except making white noise – and there will still be plenty of bandwidth space (already set aside by the FCC) for Low Power Television Providers (LPTV), the local-access programs that cover high school sports and other local happenings.

There is no downside, no losers – no people left paying or holding the bag.

But without FCC approval, the whole project falls apart. The private sector won’t invest – and it will ultimately fall to the government (and taxpayers) to pick up the tab. The cost of that would be enormous because it would entail far more than the expense of additional infrastructure investment.

The human capital loss would incalculable.

Tens of millions of Americans effectively left stranded – and excluded – from eCommerce, online education and communications; not just YouTube videos but job opportunities and vital information that they won’t even know about, since they haven’t got access to the technology necessary to know about it.

“As a country, we should not settle for an outcome that leaves behind over 23 million of our rural neighbors,” Smith says.

Especially when the investment is being made almost entirely by the private sector, at little cost to the public – and for the benefit of the public. More than 40 congresspeople from both parties have signed a letter to the FCC expressing their support of Microsoft’s proposal.

That there is any question at all about FCC granting its approval is startling.

A decision is expected later this summer.

Eric Peters has been covering the automobile industry since the 1990s and is the author of “Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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