Microsoft boosts rural broadband efforts to reach more users

Microsoft Corp., which last year announced a plan to bring broadband to 2 million people in the rural United States, is boosting the program to reach another 1 million customers across more states.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative will now be in 25 states by this time next year, more than doubling the program’s original reach and adding states including California, Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia. The company, the world’s largest software maker, plans to reach 3 million total customers by July 2022.

After years of focusing efforts on developing markets around the world, Microsoft turned its attention closer to home after the 2016 presidential election showed how far rural parts of America had fallen behind cities in reliable, fast connectivity.  Estimates by the Federal Communications Commission that 25 million American’s can’t get broadband internet access are too low, Microsoft said. And without it, communities can’t start or run a modern business, take an online class or digitally transform their farm, according to the Redmond, Washington-based company.

The latest data from the Pew Research Center puts the number of Americans that don’t use broadband at home at about 113 million people, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said in a blog post. While those numbers measure different things, the disparity led Microsoft to do its own research and the company said that work “suggests that the Pew numbers are far closer to the mark.” Smith wrote. Meanwhile, federal funding is making little impact.

“Over the past five years, the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided more than $22 billion in subsidies and grants to telecommunications carriers to sustain, extend and improve broadband in rural America. Despite these efforts, the country’s adoption of broadband hasn’t budged much since 2013,” Smith said in his post.

Microsoft initially announced the program in July 2017. The initiative has met with some criticism from broadcasters opposed to Microsoft’s use of the so-called white-spaces spectrumthe unused frequencies between TV channels, to provide the service.

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