Microsoft Airband: An annual update on connecting rural America

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Last year, a team of Amish-owned horses dragged a load up a ridge near Essex, New York. It was a normal scene for rural America – straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting – except that they were bearing telecommunications equipment to connect the local community to the internet.  

Essex is barely 12 miles across the lake from Burlington, Vermont, but broadband is scarce. In our increasingly digital and interconnected world, broadband is as important as electricity or water. Rural communities without broadband face higher unemployment rates and see fewer educational and economic opportunities. For the woman overseeing the horses, Beth Schiller, CEO of CvWireless LLC, this is a solvable problem. Together with Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, she’s bringing connectivity to her community. 

In the summer of 2017, we launched the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which brings broadband connectivity to people living in underserved rural areas. To eliminate the rural broadband gap, we bring together privatesector capital investment in new technologies and rural broadband deployments with publicsector financial and regulatory support. We set an ambitious goal: to provide access to broadband to three million people in unserved rural areas of the United States by July 4, 2022At two and a half years since launch, we are at the halfway point of the time we gave ourselves to meet this goal and we feel good about the steady progress we’ve made and how much we have learned. But one thing we have learned is that the problem is even bigger than we imagined. 

The broadband gap is wide but solvable 

Beth’s horse-borne approach to connectivity may be unique, but the problem is not: According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2019 broadband report, more than 21 million people in America, nearly 17 million of whom live in rural communities, don’t have access to broadband.  

A recent study by BroadbandNow found that the number of unserved people is nearly double the current reported amount and more than 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband especially in rural areas. Our own data shows that some 157.3 million people in the U.S. do not use the internet at broadband speedsAnd while we are making progress and the reported number is down by six million people from last year, that’s still more than the populations of our eight biggest states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Georgia – combined. More must be done. 

As we’ve said from the start of the initiativewithout accurate data we cannot fully understand the broadband gap. You cannot solve a problem you don’t understand. More accurate data will help deploy broadband in the places its neededBecause the government makes many funding decisions based on federal data, communities that lack broadband – but, according to FCC data, have access to broadband – have less access to resources needed to actually secure broadband connectivity. This is certainly a Catch-22, but it can be solved. We’re encouraged that the FCC has adopted new policies that should result in broadband providers reporting more accurate data and that Congress has worked on legislation to improve the FCC’s broadband dataIt’s imperative that these policy changes are quickly and fully implemented so that people without broadband will get access to it 

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Steady progress to close the broadband gap

But the country can’t wait on perfect data. We’re moving full steam ahead in the areas where we know we can help and making steady progress against our 3-million-person goal. We’re now in 25 states and one territory, and staging pilot programs in two additional states. We’ve already reached a total of 633,000 previously unserved people, up from 24,000 people in 2018, and as our partners’ network deployments accelerate over the coming months, we will be reaching many more.

We haven’t made this progress alone. We have made it through building partnerships throughout the United States, learning more about local solutions that will close the broadband gap. Partners such as Wisper Internet will work to bring broadband access to almost 1 million people in rural unserved areas in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. In Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, our partner Watch Communications will bring high-speed internet access to more than 860,000 people living in unserved rural areas. Our partnerships also bring connectivity to historically underserved communities, including those residing on tribal lands. Sacred Wind Communications will help approximately 47,000 people on and off Navajo lands in New Mexico reap the benefits that come with access to the internet. Moreover, we have forged strategic partnerships with American Tower Corporation, Tilson, and Zayo Group over the last year that will further bring down the end-to-end network deployment costs for rural ISPs. We have also established a broad-based Airband ISP Program that provides ISPs in 47 states plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico with access to critical assets, helping them connect rural communities.

There’s good news about the cost of connectivity. The price of TV white spaces devices (TVWS) – a new connectivity technology that’s particularly useful in rural areas where laying cable simply isn’t an option – continues to drop. In the last year, the cost of customer equipment has plummeted by 50%, all while achievable speeds have increased tenfold.

At the same time, we’re pleased to see our partners in government make important, steady progress to enable these new technologies. We applaud Chairman Pai and the FCC for their vote last week to propose positive and necessary changes to TVWS regulations. Reducing red tape will enable ISPs to accelerate their progress in rural broadband deployment and help bridge the digital divide in rural America. We are also pleased that the FCC has announced plans to make up to $20 billion available in Rural Digital Opportunity funding to help ISPs bring high-speed broadband access to high-cost unserved rural areas. At the state level, we’re pleased that several state governments have created their own funding programs to support new broadband infrastructure, including Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and South Dakota.

What comes after connectivity?

As we’ve connected communities across the country, we’ve kept asking ourselves a central, key question: What comes after connectivity?

Broadband connections aren’t a panacea for all that ails rural America. Simply plugging in an ethernet cable doesn’t create jobs, increase farmers’ yields or provide a veteran with healthcare. Rural communities need resources beyond infrastructure to rebuild and lift themselves up. That’s why much of our work goes well beyond connectivity.

From education, agriculture, veterans to healthcare, we are working with local and national organizations to take the next step. For example, we are partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support their telehealth initiative. We are working with Airband partners to offer discounted broadband service to veterans as well as provide vital digital skills and employability training. Our work on Airband is enabling other Microsoft efforts – such as our TechSpark program, digital skills initiatives and even environmental sustainability – to flourish in areas we’d never be able to reach otherwise.

Take for example, agriculture. The family farm is the embodiment of rural America. Unfortunately, many American farmers have struggled in recent years, whether because of policy, extreme weather events and climate change, or falling crop prices. Farmers need help, and many have turned to new technologies to compete in the global marketplace. Our FarmBeats platform is one such technology that can give farmers a real-time view of their land using ground-based sensors and “internet of things” technology to track everything from soil temperature to pH levels to moisture data. This can create a modern “Farmers’ Almanac” to chart out the farm’s future, helping farmers predict what they should plant and where, increase yields, better utilize fertilizer and irrigate more efficiently. But a farm that lacks access to high-speed internet will be left in the past, unable to use these new technologies. That’s where Airband comes in: connecting rural communities to transformative technologies.

The effort to electrify rural America in the 1930s enabled new technologies to transform those areas, empowering farms, ranches and other rural places and improving quality of life and economic opportunity. Now, nearly 90 years later, broadband can similarly provide the infrastructure to lift up rural America, but we’re losing the race against time. While our investments and those of our partners are taking seed and we are beginning to see advances, technological progress doesn’t wait. If we don’t move faster, rural America will be left further behind. We can’t let that happen.

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