SAN FRANCISCO Microsoft is tackling the decade-old quandary of limited broadband access in rural America with an ambitious plan to close the gap.
Today, company President Brad Smith in a speech in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to lay out its Rural AirBand Initiative to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to two million people by 2022. Microsoft initially plans projects in a dozen states including Georgia, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin in the next 12 months.
“It’s our biggest push for broadband coverage,” Smith told USA TODAY in a phone interview last week. “We’re putting in a big stake and hope to close the gap entirely in five years.
An estimated 23.4 million people in rural America are without broadband, and another 11 million in urban areas. Despite intermittent efforts by the federal government and private enterprise to ease the problem over the years, a lack of available technology and prohibitive costs have hampered efforts, Smith says.
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“It’s a last-mile problem,” says Nick Reese, co-founder of BroadbandNow, a search engine for broadband that provides data on the most underserved states for broadband Internet connection. More than a third of Mississippi’s population (1.12 million), for example, lacks such service. Alabama, Alaska and Arkansas are also among the least-served.
The Federal Communications Commission recently claimed Net neutrality regulations are “widening the digital divide in our country and accentuating the practice of digital redlining of fencing off lower-income neighborhoods on the map.” Analysts say the reasons for the drop in broadband were more complicated, tied up with the big telecom companies’ mergers and strategic shifts.
Whatever the reason, the gap is clear. Slightly more than half of U.S. rural residents have access to downloads faster than 25 megabits per second, compared to 94% in urban areas, according to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.
Broadband penetration in U.S. homes with annual incomes of less than $50,000 is just 59.3% versus 88.8% in households with higher incomes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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Previous attempts to expand rural broadband, such as $7.2 billion spent on rural broadband under President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, have been deemed woefully insufficient.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro visited San Francisco in late 2015 to build support for ConnectHome, an initiative that aims to bring accessible broadband Internet access to 750,000 residents of low-income housing communities in 28 pilot cities such as Los Angeles, Memphis, Newark, Cleveland and New Orleans.
A change in administrations, though, largely blunted its momentum.
President Trump last month said expanded broadband access in rural areas will be part of his national $1 trillion infrastructure plan “to promote and foster, enhance broadband access for rural America,” Trump said in Iowa.
But experts say the project’s cost would be steep — an estimated $80 billion — based on an FCC study in January, calculating the price tag for providing coverage to 98% of rural America.
Microsoft thinks it can succeed where other efforts have fallen short through its technological expertise, vast business operations and partnerships, investments and a licensing program.
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Microsoft, in part, is leveraging satellite coverage and TV White Space, a 600 MHz band known as Super Wi-Fi, to deliver affordable broadband.
In addition, Microsoft announced a philanthropic project with non-profit 4-H to help train people in rural areas so they can use broadband to improve education, health care, agriculture and opportunities for small business. It also unveiled a technology licensing program to stimulate investment in the private sector by providing royalty-free and open source licenses to more than 30 patented inventions.
The plan isn’t entirely philanthropic, Smith acknowledges. “The more people connected to the Internet, the more commercial benefit to Microsoft and others,” he says.