Microsoft’s president Brad Smith announced the new initiative.
Rural communities are often missing a lot of the commodities that urban hotspots can’t imagine living without. There’s not a Starbucks or Soul Cycle on every corner, and broadband internet access isn’t always a given.
Microsoft is the latest tech company trying to make "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of rural broadband" its new motto. The company’s new $10 billion Rural Airband Initiative is aimed at filling the gap of underserved rural Americans with affordable high-speed internet. Facebook, Google, and Amazon have all jumped into the area of providing some form of internet service, and now we can finally add Microsoft to the list.
The lofty goal is to help bring broadband access to the 23.4 million rural Americans currently living without high-speed internet by July 4, 2020. It’s an aggressive target, but at least somewhat admirable.
Microsoft set some clear guidelines for reaching this huge number of people. It will rely not only on money from private capital investments, but also on support from the public sector. This means input from the government.
Microsoft first needs the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to provide three sub-700 MHz channels across the country, so it can use those frequencies for broadband internet. It also wants state and federal infrastructure investments to match funds for expanding coverage into places that have some broadband already, and also wants to reach into completely new rural areas. Finally, Microsoft wants the FCC to provide more data about the current state of broadband coverage in rural areas.
"Broadband connectivity is no longer simply a luxury for streaming YouTube videos on a tablet. It has become a critical connection to a better education and living."
The initiative is very much focused around TV white spaces, or the unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum of UHV television bands. The bandwidth is around 600 MHz, and it can travel over hills and through buildings and trees. Television networks use it as a buffering space between channels, but some people want to use it for broadband internet.
It will be used to hit areas with only two to 200 people living in each square mile. In areas with less than two people per square mile, satellite coverage will be used, and areas with over 200 people in this range will rely on fixed wireless and limited fiber connections.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, explained the use of all three methods in a blog post.
"By relying on this mixture of technologies, the total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap falls into a range of $8 to $12 billion," Smith said. "This is roughly 80 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G."
He noted one huge factor why this whole initiative is being put into place at all: Rural communities are at a big disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts when it comes to economic and educational opportunities.
Image: Microsoft blog
The Rural Airband Initiative will come to these 12 states first.
The new plan will rollout in 12 states over the next 12 months. This will only benefit 2 million of the 23 million Americans still without broadband access, but it’s definitely a start. Microsoft plans to partner with telecommunications companies to get the job done faster, too.
Once rural communities are set up with their broadband, Microsoft claims it will invest in digital skills training through Microsoft Philanthropies. People will learn how to use their new technology to improve education, health care, agriculture, and their own businesses.
Microsoft is also launching a new program to share what they’ve learned through this process with other technology companies. This means royalty-free access to at least 39 patents and access to sample source code for the technology used to bring broadband through TV white spaces to rural communities.
This is all great, and rural communities will see huge benefits if this all works out. But don’t forget that Microsoft (and other technology companies) will benefitting from this initiative, too.
More people with access to the internet means more people that are paying for internet services, some of which could very well add to the wealth of Microsoft itself. There’s nothing like buying a new Microsoft Lumina phone to play on the internet provided to you by Microsoft.
But, no matter how Microsoft is benefitting from the deal, there’s still a lot of good behind it. People living in rural communities might finally have access to the web like those of us in urban areas have had for quite some time. Whether this means better education, a boost in the economy, or more people choosing to stay in their hometowns because they finally have internet equality, it’s a good deal all around. So if you live in a rural area of the United States, you can look forward to being a part of the internet searching masses by 2020.