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How Microsoft Plans to Close the Rural Broadband Gap

Industry News, Innovation

The rapidly growing global community heavily relies on the world wide web to communicate, conduct business, market products, offer services and access educational resources. The online community has been so overly successful that it’s quickly becoming ubiquitous in our every-day lives. Though it seems hard to believe, millions of Americans live in areas that traditional broadband services can’t reach. Microsoft has publicly announced their plans to create public-private partnerships moving forward to correct this societal issue. The company plans to utilize new technologies and existing unused airwaves to make it happen with their new “Super Wi-Fi”.

The Rural Broadband Issue

The FCC reports that 23.4 million Americans living in countryside areas do not have access to broadband with at least 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds (). A lack of online capabilities can hinder a child’s education, limit an adult’s job opportunities and potentially disrupt government healthcare services. The online world can also provide discounted services and products to consumers. The Internet Innovation Alliance found that the typical consumer could potentially save over $8,000 each year by using online resources to locate the best deals and discounts. The growing online world is becoming so integral to everyday life, but millions are being left without any access to broadband capabilities. While some people simply can’t afford the necessary technology to access the online world, many more can’t access the services even when they have the financial means due to a lack of broadband access in the area. This digital gap is becoming yet another barrier for the disadvantaged to hurdle. A 2010 Federal Communications Commission Survey highlights this unfortunate reality by confirming that 93 percent of households with incomes over $75,000 have high-speed connectivity, and only 40 percent of households with incomes less than $20,000 have broadband.

Rural Airband Initiative

Microsoft has announced its interest in closing the broadband gap in the countryside America. Brad Smith, the company’s president, confirmed this month that Microsoft will be investing their own profits into the project in a philanthropic effort. They hope to expand broadband reach to around two million Americans throughout 2017 and 2018. This Rural Airband Initiative plans on utilizing unused TV white space. White space airwaves have remained unused since America made the switch from analog to digital, but with new technologies the space could successfully provide broadband internet. Residents could purchase newly created router-type devices that access the TV’s white space and satellite technology to provide internet access. Microsoft argues that this project is the best approach and could provide for around 80 percent of America’s countryside population. The overall goal is to entirely eliminate the broadband gap within five years.

“Super Wi-Fi”

Bringing current satellite data networks, like 4G LTE, to the countryside would cost between $15 and $25 billion. Installing fiber optics cables to homes in these areas could cost upwards of $45 to $65 billion. Instead, the white space on unused TV channels can carry a connection strength so powerful that it has been nicknamed “Super Wi-Fi”. The Super powered Wi-Fi and TV channel tech will reduce the broadband gap problem from costing $50 billion to about $8-12 billion.

If Microsoft’s initiative is successful, then this could be a game-changer for Americans that live in smaller areas. Incredibly, the company will not directly profit from their efforts but rather hopes to accomplish what politicians have failed to do. As Johnathan Hladik, a program director for the Center for Rural Affairs, quotes “both adequate funding and innovative policy solutions have been missing…In a lot of ways, it looks like Microsoft has done what the Trump administration has failed to do.” Microsoft is still limited by policy barriers like the FCC’s control over white space and data collection policies. Additionally, proponents argue there needs to be a matching contribution by the state or federal government. With Microsoft’s commitment, we can expect to see the online community’s numbers rapidly grow over the next several years.