Microsoft’s president on Tuesday pointed to a partnership with the Machias-based Axiom Technologies as a key to proving that the tech giant can dramatically improve rural broadband service.
The company has deployed internet service to about 18 customers on Passamaquoddy land, sending data across vacant television frequencies, called TV white space.
Microsoft highlighted that effort as one of 12 pilot projects it will use to prove its model for bringing broadband internet service quality in line with urban areas.
Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company believes the U.S. can close the rural broadband gap in the next five years, in part by tapping into those unused television frequencies. Its other strategies include fixed wireless service and satellite services.
The Camden-based Redzone Wireless launched in 2015 with a fixed-wireless Internet service using a spectrum set aside for educational institutions.
The announcement amplifies Microsoft’s existing work with Axiom, to which it previously awarded the company a $72,000 Affordable Access Grant.
Mark Ouellette, president of Axiom Technologies, said the grant helped it deploy and offer TV whitespace service for $9.99 per month for the first year. The service under that grant also includes digital literacy training, an effort Axiom CEO and founder Susan Corbett has championed in addition to expanding broadband infrastructure.
The company has offered basic service using TV white space for about $39.99 per month.
Ouellette said about 20,000 Maine homes are still without any broadband internet connection and many more are without connections that meet state or federal minimums for broadband speeds.
Axiom and Microsoft believe wireless internet over those unused television frequencies can help connect those far-flung homes where stringing copper or fiber data cables doesn’t make economic sense.
Axiom has studied that type of technology for years, working in 2014 with the Virginia-based Declaration Networks to try the technology that doesn’t require a line of sight to provide service. Ouellette said its current deployment uses hardware from the San Jose-based company Adaptrum, which he said has a business relationship with Microsoft.
Across its 12 pilot projects, Microsoft said it hopes to connect 2 million more people to broadband internet service. It said it will make the upfront investments and then share in revenue from operators, to recoup that money.
Microsoft has also offered technical help and access to its patents to participating companies. In its report Tuesday, the company also issued recommendations to federal policymakers, urging them to preserve at least three television channels for delivering internet service.
Ouellette said Axiom hasn’t discussed additional investments with Microsoft, but talk of revenue sharing partnerships signals the company will be looking to put more money behind the effort in coming years.
“That would indicate that they’re thinking about another investment,” Ouellette said. “That has not been discussed with them at all, but that seems to be where we’re going.”