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Microsoft Launches Partnership To Expand Wireless Internet In Rural Ohio

Sam Hendren
Signs in rural Fayette County advertise satellite-to-home internet service.

Many rural Ohioans could soon be getting broadband access for the first time thanks to a partnership between Microsoft and Agile networks.

Many rural areas around the country have limited or even no broadband access because providers say it’s too expensive to run new cable or fiber optic lines. Agile Networks CEO Kyle Quillen says the partnership, known as the Airband Initiative, would avoid much of the expense by relying on wireless signals instead.

“This particular piece of spectrum works very similarly to your Wi-Fi signal that you have, but it utilizes the space between television channels that has essentially gone unutilized,” he explains.

The plan is to provide coverage for nearly a million Ohioans, about 100,000 of which currently have no broadband access at all.

It may be wireless, but Quillen says his company's service is reliable enough to handle a typical household's traffic.

"We believe and our testing has shown and our integration testing has shown that this will be more than sustainable for remote work and video streaming and all of the things that you do in the internet economy," Quillen says.

Stuart Johnson, head of the internet advocacy group Connect Ohio, is excited about the partnership.  But he warns the Airband Initiative is probably going to be just a first step. 

Like Quillen, he points to the spectrum range’s relatively low frequency. This means it can propagate further and past greater barriers than the frequencies we use for technology like cell phones. Those qualities are ideal for rural Ohio’s rolling hills and valleys, but Johnson explains there’s one big drawback—speed.

“You’ll have to bond some channels together in order to get up to FCC standard speed levels, and the technology from an equipment perspective just isn’t quite there yet,” Johnson says.

Still, Johnson is optimistic, noting the field is rapidly developing.

Quillen claims in some tests they’ve been able to get a 50mb connection in a valley where cell phones had no signal at all.

Quillen also says spreading wireless signals through existing towers is more promising than satellite providers.  He explains those services have to beam a signal tens of thousands of miles.

"This technology will beam to a cell site or a tower site that's four or five miles away,” he says, “so inherently it's going to be a lot better solution to those in those less connected areas."

Agile Networks is still finalizing its rollout but plans to have services available soon.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.