A rural broadband strategy: connecting rural America to new opportunities
By Brad Smith – President and Chief Legal Officer
Jul 10 2017
Today I will present Microsoft’s thoughts on the rural broadband gap in the United States at a lunch sponsored by the Media Institute in Washington, D.C. It is an important opportunity to address a problem that is receiving a great deal of attention, but not many solutions. While we don’t have all the answers, Microsoft has spent several years working on the issue and we published a white paper today with our best ideas for a new national rural broadband strategy. A summary of our white paper is here.
Today’s event takes place at the Willard Hotel, in the same building where 800 of America’s most prominent leaders in science, business, art and government convened 101 years ago to honor Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone and look to the future of long distance communications. That event, called “Voice Voyages,” was sponsored by The National Geographic Society and featured the unprecedented public demonstration of coast-to-coast telephone capability that would connect every community large and small across the nation.
A century later, a new generation of connectivity issues are arising at a critical time. Broadband connectivity is no longer simply a luxury for streaming YouTube videos on a tablet (as enjoyable as that may be). It has become a critical connection to a better education and living. New cloud services are making broadband a necessity to start and grow a small business and take advantage of advances in agriculture, telemedicine and education. In short, broadband has become a vital part of 21stcentury infrastructure.
Yet today 34 million Americans still lack broadband internet access, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a 25 Mbps connection. Of these, 23.4 million live in rural parts of our country. People who live in these rural communities increasingly are unable to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities enjoyed by their urban neighbors.
Yet despite this glaring disparity, real progress to close the rural broadband gap has plateaued in recent years. High costs, the absence of new and alternative technologies, and market and regulatory conditions have all hampered efforts to expand coverage. But this is changing, thanks to recent advancements in technology, newly adopted standards, business model innovations and a growing demand for broadened cloud services.
A new rural broadband strategy
The time is right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious but achievable goal – to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years by July 4, 2022. We believe the nation can bring broadband coverage to rural America in this timeframe, based on a new strategic approach that combines private sector capital investments focused on expanding broadband coverage through new technologies, coupled with targeted and affordable public-sector support.
Our call for a new strategy reflects in part our own experience as a company working around the world to make use of what’s called TV White Spaces spectrum. This is unused spectrum in the UHF television bands. This powerful bandwidth is in the 600 MHz frequency range and enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees. It’s why people could watch television programs in rural communities long before the advent of satellite television. Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this spectrum, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users.
In 2010 the FCC adopted rules enabling the use of TV white spaces in the United States. It has taken years of additional work to put in place the building blocks needed for the use of this spectrum to scale in an affordable way. We and others have worked to perfect the hardware and software technology, develop industry-wide standards and innovate our way to a practical business model. These advances have now reached a critical threshold, however, and together with increasing demand for cloud services, the market is poised to accelerate – if we take the right steps.