A New Use for Rabbit-Ear Antennas: Decreasing the Rural Digital Divide

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Key points:

  • Microsoft wants to use obsolete over-the-air television frequencies to provide high-speed Internet access to rural communities.
  • Research has shown that increased adoption of high-speed Internet is associated with higher incomes, lower unemployment rates, and decreased out-migration from rural areas.
  • Existing obstacles to this technology and its benefits include existing regulations, high-priced devices for using the new technology, and adoption rates by new users.

Microsoft, the company that has for decades dominated the personal computing world with software such as Windows, Word, and Excel, has announced plans to take a shot at bridging the technological divide still facing many rural communities in the United States. The company has proposed the development of a new way for bringing high-speed Internet access to rural communities.

Termed “super Wi-Fi,” the technology would piggy-back on largely unused over-the-air television frequencies—the kinds you would pick up with rabbit-ear antennas—to beam high-speed Internet signals. Because the over-the-air television frequencies are relatively low powered, they can reach even some of the most remote places in the country, implying that over 24 million people in rural areas who still do not have high-speed Internet access could begin to experience its benefits.

Recent rural development research has almost ubiquitously shown that increased use of high-speed Internet by members of rural communities creates economic benefits for those individuals and their broader community. For example, individuals can diversify their income streams and expand opportunities for non-agricultural employment, which can result in positive economic spillover effects and reduce migration out of rural communities.  Other research has shown that increased use of high-speed Internet by rural communities typically increases the median income levels of individuals in those communities and lowers unemployment rates.

But important challenges still remain for realizing this technological and economic potential. First, Microsoft would need to convince state and federal regulators that their use of over-the-air TV frequencies would not interfere with TV stations’ abilities to deliver their own programming. Second, the company would need to significantly reduce the cost of consumer-level devices that receive the super Wi-Fi signals. Currently, this device costs over $1,000 per home, but Microsoft is targeting a $200 price point in the future. Despite these challenges, the size, economic resources, and political influence of the software giant substantially increase the chances that the company will be more successful in overcoming these regulatory and technological challenges than previous attempts by smaller start-ups.

A perhaps more important challenge, however, is the adoption gap that has repeatedly been shown to exist in rural communities. That is, even when high-speed Internet access becomes available, its adoption and use by members of rural communities has been lower than by those living in urban and suburban areas. Ultimately, most economic benefits of high-speed Internet are associated with the technology’s use rather than simply an increase in access to the technology, so better understanding of how to increase both adoption and knowledge about effective use of high-speed Internet is critical.

Have you experienced or seen the positive benefits of high-speed Internet? Are you in an area that still lacks high-speed Internet access? Let us know your story and if you have follow up questions about the relationship between high-speed Internet use and rural development.

(Photo by Gustavo Devito is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

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About Author

Dr. Anton Bekkerman is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University, joining the faculty in 2009 after completing his PhD at North Carolina State University. Bekkerman's primary areas of research are grain marketing, basis and price forecast modeling, understanding how grain prices are affected by changes in supply chain infrastructures and quality demands, and analyzing the economic trade-offs of adopting alternative dryland cropping systems in Montana. One of his current projects is an investigation of how new grain loading technologies are affecting prices that Montana farmers receive for their wheat. Bekkerman is also examining the economic impacts that Montana's rapidly expanding dry pulse industry will have on the state's crop industry. Although Bekkerman grew up on the east coast, he has recently made a small step toward production agricultural after acquiring three backyard chickens.

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