By Mike Wheatley
Microsoft Corp. is making a renewed effort to help roll out broadband internet access across rural areas of the United States, forming formed a new coalition called Connect Americans Now that aims to pressure policymakers to narrow the digital divide between urban and rural communities.
According to Microsoft’s latest figures, around 34 million Americans are still living without a reliable broadband connection. Of those, 23.4 million live in rural areas where the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist. Microsoft said that’s because Internet providers simply don’t think it will be possible to recoup the investment they make in building rural networks. But the lack of connectivity in rural areas causes problems for unemployed people looking for work, for entrepreneurs looking to start businesses, and for students who wish to work online.
Microsoft reckons the best way to bring broadband to the rural masses is to utilize unused TV channel spectrum, referred to as “white spaces,” the website Axios reported today. The company has already made inroads here, launching its “Rural Airband Initiative” last July that aims to bring broadband to 2 million rural dwellers in the next five years. However, Microsoft needs the help of the Federal Communications Commission to ensure there is enough unoccupied white spaces in every market to do so. That’s where the CAN coalition will act.
“Without a broadband connection, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments, Americans in rural areas are unable to fully utilize telemedicine, farmers are denied the promise of precision agriculture and businesses are unable to tap into the world of online commerce,” CAN Executive Director Richard Cullen said in a statement. “Congress and the FCC must stand with rural America by allowing Internet service providers to deliver broadband via white spaces spectrum.”
Microsoft has teamed up with several organizations to form CAN, including the National Rural Education Association and the Mid-Atlantic Broadcasting Communications Corp. The idea is for CAN to launch an advocacy campaign in the Capitol in order to put pressure on the FCC to act. In addition, the group aims to foster partnerships in rural communities and educate residents about delivering broadband via TV white spaces.
Microsoft already possesses the technology needed to utilize TV white space spectrum for broadband internet, and will provide much of the funding to develop new networks if CAN succeeds in its mission.