White-spaces technology has emerged as a potential solution to that problem. Since 2008, Microsoft and other companies have been involved in tests of television white spaces for internet access.
The technology is sometimes known as “super Wi-Fi” because it behaves like regular Wi-Fi but uses low-powered television channels to cover far greater distances than wireless hot spots. It is also more powerful than cellular service because the frequencies can penetrate concrete walls and other obstacles.
Promoting the white-spaces technology could reap rewards for tech companies: The remaining 24.3 million people in rural areas without internet are potential customers of cloud applications, search and other digital services.
To support the white-spaces plan, Microsoft is appealing to federal and state regulators to guarantee the use of unused television channels and investments in promoting the technology in rural areas.
But the company faces many hurdles with the technology. For one, few manufacturers are making devices compatible with white-spaces technology, and some devices that can be used with the technology cost more than $1,000 each. The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, said that only 800 devices that worked with white-spaces technology had been registered with regulators.
“White spaces has tremendous opportunity to help with broadband coverage in rural areas, but it’s hard to justify the cost to device makers who don’t see economies of scale in rural areas,” said Doug Brake, a senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a research organization that is sponsored by tech companies including Microsoft.
Mr. Smith said that he would demonstrate four devices that work with white-space technology at Tuesday’s event, adding that prices for such gadgets would fall below $200 by next year.
Another challenge is a battle with television broadcasters who have long argued that devices on the unused airwaves can interfere with the broadcasts run on neighboring channels. This week, the National Association of Broadcasters filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission arguing against Microsoft’s request for one nationwide channel to be set aside for white-spaces use.
“Microsoft has been making promises about white-spaces technology for well over a decade,” Patrick McFadden, an associate general counsel for the association, wrote in comments to the commission. “At what point do we finally conclude that the white spaces project is a bust?”
Microsoft said its goal was not to become a telecom provider. It will work with local internet service providers like Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities in Virginia and Axiom Technologies in Maine by investing in some of the capital costs and then sharing in revenue. It has also opened its patents on the technology and teamed with chip makers to make devices that work with white spaces cheaper.
“We’re looking at this to be price competitive for people in urban areas,” Mr. Smith said. “There is no reason people in rural areas need to spend more.”