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Can Microsoft’s Airband Initiative close broadband gap for 25M Americans?

A new report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that 25 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet. Of these, more than 19 million are living in rural communities. Microsoft thinks it has found a way to bring broadband — and likely a few Windows products and services — to these underserved communities.

Broadband access is becoming more and more essential to daily life. In order to browse the web quickly, to take online classes, and to watch videos or do other high-bandwidth tasks, high speed internet is necessary. Yet millions of people in the U.S. do not have the option of fast internet service available. Students, job-seekers, and those that could benefit from telemedicine are among the many deprived of faster internet.

Part of the reason so many people lack access to broadband has to do with rates of adoption of wired technologies. Other wired technologies like phone landlines, electricity, and cable all gradually increased in adoption from the first time they become available before plateauing at an adoption rate of around 70 percent. It then took decades of work and investment to raise the adoption rate to complete the last 30 percent. It took more than 25 years for the adoption rates of electricity and cable TV to rise above 70 percent. Broadband is following a similar pattern, where adoption increased steeply from the introduction of the technology around 2000, but has plateaued at around 70 percent since 2010.

To get a better picture of what the data looks like in practice, the FCC has created an interactive map of broadband penetration. You can see which areas in the U.S. have access to broadband, and also how many broadband providers are available within an area. Broadband is often expensive and slow because of a lack of competition in areas where only one or two providers are available; the map shows these areas of low competition as well.

To address this issue, Microsoft launched the Airband Initiative in 2017 to cover the broadband access gap using a combination of wireless technologies and TV white spaces, traditional fiber-based connectivity, and satellite coverage. It partnered with 16 states to support small and medium ISPs by providing funding for them to expand access to areas currently without broadband, with costs recovered through revenue sharing. This helped the cost of white space network connectivity devices drop from $800 to a much more affordable $300.

Microsoft has also raised the possibility that broadband access may be even worse than the FCC data suggests, pointing to data from the Pew Research Center, which found that 35 percent of Americans don’t use broadband at home.

Critics of Microsoft’s initiative are uneasy that one the world’s wealthiest companies is lobbying for an advantage and government money, since public sector support is essential to the company’s plan. Additionally, broadcasters are concerned that white space technology could interfere with local television service.

Citing progress since its launch 18 months ago, the Airband Initiative has now committed to expanding to 25 states next year, and aims to bring broadband access to 3 million Americans in rural areas by July 2022.

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