The digital divide comes one step closer to closing. Microsoft’s release of its white paper proposing an alternative to the expensive build-out of the US broadband network deserved more attention than it received in July. The Rural Broadband Strategy combines TV white spaces spectrum (the unused UHV television band spectrum in the 600 MHz frequency range which can penetrate through walls, hilly topography, and other obstacles) with fixed wireless and satellite coverage to economically deliver coverage to un/under-served areas versus fiber cable (80 percent savings) and LTE fixed wireless (50 percent).
34 million Americans lack broadband connection to the internet. Some of these are voluntary opt-outs, but 23.4 million live in rural areas without access, with huge economic consequences estimated in the hundreds of billions. TV white spaces can also expand coverage in small cities and more densely populated areas, including usages such as within buildings. This effort also presses the FCC, which in turn has pressed for broadband for two decades, to ensure that at least three channels below 700 MHz are kept unlicensed in all markets in the US, with more TV white spaces for rural areas.
The first part, the Rural Airband Initiative, builds on Microsoft’s present 20 programs worldwide, and is planned to connect 2 million people in by July 4, 2022, with 12 projects across the US running in the next 12 months. Much of the connectivity is dedicated to nonprofit efforts like 4-H’s digital literacy program and ‘precision agriculture’ in New York State and Washington. Microsoft is also granting royalty-free access to 39 patents and sample source code related to white spaces spectrum use in rural areas.
A positive move for telehealth’s spread. Rural healthcare providers pay up to three times as much for broadband as their urban counterparts. Telemedicine increasingly connects for consults between hospitals in rural areas and city-based health systems for specialty coverage and to provide assistance in specialized medical procedures. Telemedicine and telehealth remote monitoring has difficulty spreading with poor internet coverage; this has already been a barrier to patients in rural ACOs who can be 1-2 hours from the doctor’s office and notably for the VA in providing rural veterans with home telehealth support. Paramedics increasingly rely on internet connections and dropped connections lead ambulances to go to hospitals at a greater distance. If the FCC cooperates and Microsoft’s partners can find a way to profitably execute, broadband can finally achieve that promise about closing the ‘digital divide’ made back in the Clinton Administration. A Rural Broadband Strategy: Connecting Rural America to New Opportunities The Verge, mHealth Intelligence, Becker’s Hospital Review