For years, Microsoft Corp. focused its efforts to expand high-speed internet access on developing markets around the world. Now, the company is waking up to the problem in its own backyard, after the 2016 presidential election shed light on how far rural parts of America had fallen behind cities in reliable, fast connectivity -- and the challenges that gap poses for residents.
The software giant on Tuesday is calling for a national strategy that eliminates the rural broadband gap over the next five years. It's starting by funding projects to bring access to less-populated areas in 12 U.S. states in the next year, and will share the new technology with other companies that want to do the same. By 2022, the Redmond, Washington-based company plans to provide fast internet to 2 million people, using so-called white-spaces spectrum -- the unused frequencies between TV channels. It will face some hurdles, including opposition from broadcasters reluctant to surrender airwaves.
Right now, 23.4 million Americans in rural areas can't get the fast internet access increasingly needed for tasks like homework, job applications, online medical treatment and remote repairs for farming equipment. Over the years, Microsoft developed and tested its broadband software, along with new chips, devices and antennae, in places including Kenya and Colombia. While it has had some U.S. projects, Microsoft largely overlooked its home country in efforts to bridge the digital divide. That message was underscored in last year's presidential election, when rural voters expressed dissatisfaction and anger over being left out of economic and technological growth, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said.
Using white-spaces spectrum is 80 percent cheaper than a fiber connection and half the price of wireless, Smith said. A program that uses white-spaces technology for 80 percent of rural America, with satellite and wireless for the rest, could end the broadband gap at a cost of $10 billion, the company said. That could be key because President Donald Trump has pledged to expand service to rural areas with a budget some policy wonks say isn't sufficient to reach all the places in the U.S. that need it.
Politicians have been talking about fixing the shortfall in rural access for years. Recently, much of the spending on connectivity has added capacity to areas already connected rather than hooking up new ones, Smith said. Some of the $7.2 billion spent on rural broadband in President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill was wasted, said Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. Aid went to more prosperous areas that may be more profitable for providers but did little to expand access, he said recently.
One of the biggest ways Microsoft thinks it can make a difference is by bringing speedier online service to these areas -- a program it's calling the Rural Airband Initiative -- and helping other companies do the same. The effort also lets the company tap into a priority for the Trump administration, whose promise to expand broadband service is part of a $1 trillion nationwide infrastructure plan.