Microsoft, Watch Communications ink pact to expand Airband Initiative in 3 states

Microsoft and Watch Communications have signed a pact to expand broadband access in underserved areas of three states as part of the tech company’s ongoing Airband Initiative to help close the digital divide.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative launched in 2017, and focuses on utilizing unused broadcast frequencies between TV channels (known as TV white spaces) to help deliver enhanced connectivity coverage. The project has a goal of extending high-speed internet access to 3 million people in rural America by July 2022.

As part of the latest agreement, Ohio-based Watch plans to deploy a variety of broadband connectivity technologies in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. The deployments are expected to cover more than 4 million people in total, including 815,000 people in areas of the states that currently lack access to broadband.

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Watch will use a combination of fiber optic cable and wireless networks, but deployments in remote and terrain-challenged areas will focus on wireless technologies that leverage TV white spaces.  

Fifty counties in Indiana and 22 counties in Illinois are expected to benefit from the agreement, as will most of Ohio’s 88 counties.

This is the Airband Initiative’s first deployment in Indiana, and Microsoft expects coverage to reach more than 1 million people in the state, including more than 440,000 people in unserved areas. The partnership is expected to bring broadband access to 288,000 and 80,000 people in unserved areas of Ohio and Illinois, respectively.

Microsoft has done independent research into broadband access and availability, asserting broadband mapping data from the Federal Communications Commission is not accurate.  According to the FCC, more than 673,000 people in Indiana don’t have access to high-speed internet, while Microsoft data shows more than 4.3 million people in the state don’t have broadband speeds.

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"You can't be a part of the modern economy or education system without access to high-speed internet, and we are taking steps in Ohio to extend broadband to those who are underserved across the state," said Lt. Governor Jon Husted of Ohio in a statement. "Thank you to Microsoft for being among the leaders on this and for being willing to consider innovative solutions to help extend opportunity to people in Ohio who need it."

The deployments in Ohio and Illinois represent Microsoft’s second Airband Initiative deployment in each state. The tech company signed an agreement with Agile Networks in August 2018 to deliver broadband in Ohio, followed by a September pact with Network Business Systems for expanded high-speed internet in Illinois.

Microsoft believes TV white spaces, which can handle frequencies that travel long distances, make sense for rural areas, Shelley McKinley, head of Microsoft’s technology and corporate responsibility group told FierceWireless in an interview earlier this year.

“When you think of the areas that need to be covered, they’re often challenging geographies and low population,” she said. “This [white spaces] is a type of technology that’s quite helpful in these areas.