Microsoft wants to use white space broadband to connect rural India to the internet

Rural regions in India could soon have improved high-speed internet delivered over the last mile without wires, if a Microsoft program that taps unused wireless spectrum to provide free internet to rural regions receives government clearance.

The chairman of Microsoft India, Bhaskar Pramanik, said over the weekend that Microsoft has sought clearance for a pilot program in two districts for its white space initiative, according to the Hindustan TimesWhite space technology has previously been deployed in South Africa, Ghana, and the UK, although to this point white space broadband hasn’t been deployed at a commercially meaningful scale.

Microsoft’s tech uses the unused buffer frequencies — “white spaces” — between TV channels to carry data. In India, these spaces end up being available in the 200-300 MHz spectrum band, although there are chunks of unused spectrum available in India up to 700 MHz. Currently, that spectrum belongs to a national broadcaster in India, Dorrdarshan. White space signals can travel up to 10 kilometers, which makes the technology perfect for connecting rural or expensive-to-wire areas. For participating regions, a $20,000 white space router in a town center would receive the white space signals and then provide free Wi-Fi access to the town’s citizens.

[company]Microsoft[/company] is looking to prove that its technology is commercially viable, which would eventually require various regulatory agencies to approve the spectrum use. But the upside is considerable — some have estimated that white space connectivity (at speeds up to 4Mbps) could cost as little as $2.10 per month per user.

In recent years, providing internet to the world’s un-networked has become a favorite long-term project of American tech giants, which usually angle the programs as a form of charity. [company]Facebook[/company] has millions of people accessing the internet through its program and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month he wants to help Indians connect to the internet. [company]Google[/company] has publicly toyed with the idea of using high-altitude dirigibles to help provide internet service, which it calls Project Loon, and has its own white space program. Even [company]SpaceX[/company] CEO Elon Musk has ambitions to network the developing world, with murmurs last week that he was hoping to launch 700 internet satellites.

Better internet will be essential to unlocking the potential from low-cost smartphones in areas without LTE or 3G service. Android One, Google’s program to standardize and improve low-cost Android devices, can help push the cost of a pocket computer down to affordable levels, but without reliable internet access, the power of a smartphone is hampered.

In the past year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been backing a plan called Digital India, which is a sprawling $1.2 billion program with many aims, but one of its primary concerns is providing high-quality internet connections in the most remote parts of the country. If Microsoft were to widely implement white space networking in India, it would be the technology’s most high-profile success so far, but Microsoft is unlikely to be the only tech giant bidding.