Microsoft Corp., which has spent the last 17 months expanding rural broadband coverage by establishing fixed wireless partnerships with providers nationwide, complained earlier this week that there is no accurate measure of broadband usage in rural America today. Estimates based on FCC data suggest that broadband internet service is available to about 92 percent of the American population. Microsoft responds that the FCC estimates are not only too optimistic, but they don’t even ask the right question.
“While the FCC measures access to broadband, Pew Research for 17 years has been asking people whether they have been using broadband and Pew says today that 35 percent of the people in our country do not use the internet at broadband speed,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith during an event in downtown Washington, DC. “We’ve assembled our own data. We have over 200 services we operate as a company. We can see download speeds across the country … What we have found is that basically half the country is still not using the internet at broadband speed.”
Smith appeared at the event to provide a progress update for Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative, which he originally announced during a July 2017 gathering in DC. At the time, he pledged to work with broadband partners in rural areas to connect two million people to broadband internet. At the same time, Microsoft hoped to inspire other companies to invest in rural broadband projects with the goal of eliminating the rural/urban broadband gap by July 4, 2022.
This week, Smith said that Microsoft continues to push for the 2022 goal, despite the large number of households the industry still must reach. “We have a big problem to solve and, in truth, it is a lot bigger than we thought it was a year ago,” he said.
However, he said that the Rural Airband Initiative has progressed better than expected and that Microsoft is increasing its commitment and will connect 3 million Americans by 2022. He reported that Microsoft has partnerships with rural internet providers in 16 states and expects to have established 25 partnerships by the end of next year.
The company believes today, as it did at the beginning of the initiative, that fixed wireless broadband connections using the TV White Spaces (TWS) – unused portions of the broadcast TV bands – is the key closing the broadband coverage gap. All the rural partnerships it has entered have involved deploying towers and transmission equipment in those parts of the spectrum. Low-band TV frequencies can provide wide channels for high-speed data, along with favorable propagation characteristics, so that signals travel several miles and penetrate walls and other barriers.
“Wired technologies always take longer” to build and maintain, Smith claimed. “One of the fundamental questions as a country we need to address: Are we content focusing on this problem with the expectation that it will take us to the middle of the century to solve? Or are we going to find a way to go faster?”
NRTC’s belief is that the rural broadband issue is more complex. Wired technologies up to fiber to the home are financially viable in good time in some rural areas. Others require fixed wireless solutions and others will go forward with hybrid solutions in the near term.