By MAX GARLAND
West Virginia is among the states Microsoft is targeting for a rural broadband expansion initiative the company debuted last year.
Microsoft will launch at least one broadband project in the state through its "Rural Airband Initiative" by partnering and providing funding for an internet service provider, said Melissa Sassi, Microsoft's Airband program manager, at a Charleston event hosted Thursday by the tech giant and Create West Virginia.
The initiative focuses on improving broadband access in rural areas via TV white spaces, a method the company says can be more effective in areas where it is normally too costly to establish a wired internet connection, and other methods. The company is expected to announce details of the projects it will be involved with in July, Sassi said.
"When we do announce it, West Virginia will be excited about one of the projects that has been awarded through our grant program," she said.
Sassi outlined the initiative as one of the speakers at the Culture Center event "West Virginia Broadband Networks: Tools for Economic Development and Opportunity." Speakers focused on rural America's issues with broadband access and the importance of fast connection speeds.
Information from Microsoft was scarce Thursday as to what kind of West Virginia-based project will surface out of the initiative - the company still needs to figure out the internet service provider it will partner with for the project, Sassi said.
"We want to make sure we have an ISP partner that has a skilled group of engineers and have expertise," she said.
Sassi said the company is willing to work with either larger providers or smaller, local providers for these projects. However, she noted that larger providers haven't explored much in the TV white spaces sector yet.
The TV white space method uses unused broadcast channels between active ones to provide internet service. That type of technology doesn't have line-of-sight issues that a typical wireless broadband connection would have in mountainous terrain, Sassi said.
Microsoft is pushing the Federal Communications Commission "to ensure that at least three channels below 700 MHz - the so-called TV white spaces - are available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets and rural areas," the company said in a document outlining the Airband initiative.
The National Association of Broadcasters has strongly opposed Microsoft's proposal to the FCC, however, saying in August that the move "would jeopardize local broadcast news, programming and lifeline emergency information for millions of Americans."
Microsoft hasn't detailed how much funding providers received in previously announced projects, but the goals for those projects are ambitious.
Microsoft says it wants to deliver broadband to two million people by 2022 through Rural Airband Initiative projects.
Microsoft announced one of the projects in February, a partnership with the Michigan-based Packerland Broadband to extend the company's broadband access to roughly 82,000 people by 2022 in unserved areas of rural Michigan and Wisconsin.
Packerland "will provide Windows devices, Office 365 and other cloud-based services to small businesses, consumers and students, as well as digital literacy skills training" as part of the initiative, according to a Microsoft news release.
In April, Virginia-based Declaration Networks Group Inc. got the nod from Microsoft to help the company deliver broadband internet access to about 65,000 people in rural Virginia and Maryland over the next three years.
The FCC's 2018 Broadband Deployment Report ranked West Virginia 43rd among states in fixed broadband access. State and local officials have been clamoring for better broadband access, noting how that could bolster the business and education environments. Much of their efforts have gone toward trying to acquire federal and state funding to motivate companies to build in the more rural areas of West Virginia.
Progress on that front has picked up in the past three years because of state lawmakers recognizing the problem and having "the political will to correct it," said Charlie Dennie, vice president of government relations at Alpha Technologies, which is constructing an underground fiber-optic loop through Charleston and South Charleston.