Microsoft Takes on the Digital Divide, This Time with Data

Posted on December 5, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Microsoft, Mobile with 67 Comments

Yesterday, Microsoft refuted U.S. governmental numbers about broadband Internet access, stating that its own data shows that the digital divide is far worse than previously reported.

“The country’s adoption of broadband hasn’t budged much since 2013,” Microsoft president Brad Smith explained in a blog post. “This inability to build out the last mile of the 21st century’s digital infrastructure has exacerbated the country’s growing prosperity and opportunity divides — divisions that often fall along urban and rural lines.”

The data is stark.

According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband is unavailable to roughly 25 million Americans. 19 million of those people live in rural communities. Pew Research, meanwhile, claims that “35 percent of Americans” don’t have access to broadband Internet access. That’s about 113 million people, far above the FCC number.

But Microsoft says that broadband Internet coverage in the U.S. is still worse: About 163 million people in the United States, or about half the population, do not use access the Internet at broadband speeds. And Microsoft’s number isn’t based on surveys, it’s based on the actual speeds that users all over America access its online services.

This, Microsoft says, provides a far more detailed and accurate look at broadband access. And it has shared this data with the FCC in the hope of prodding further improvements to our national infrastructure.

As part of this effort, Microsoft in late 2016 committed to a five-year plan, called Airband, to bring broadband access through the white-space broadcast spectrum and other means to millions of unserved Americans living in rural communities. And this week, the firm shared what it’s learned so far.

Key among its findings is that wireless broadband access is deployed adopted far more quickly, and far less expensively, than wire-based solutions. The software giant also found that partnering with small- and medium-sized telecommunications providers tends to accelerate deployment of wireless broadband; bigger providers—AT&T, Verizon, and so on—have proven uninterested in serving these communities. A third, Microsoft says that some help from the public sector is required as well.

And that’s why Microsoft’s data is so important: If the FCC can start working off more accurate data, it can more quickly address a problem that it currently isn’t even sure exists.

To aid in this push, Microsoft is raising its target for Airband, which originally sought to bring broadband access to 2 million people by mid-2022. Now, the software giant says, it will target 3 million people. Still a drop in the bucket, so to speak, but a step forward. And there’s only so much one company can do by itself.

“We all need to move faster,” Mr. Smith concluded. “It took 50 years to electrify the nation. The millions of Americans waiting for broadband don’t have the luxury of time.”


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Comments (67)

67 responses to “Microsoft Takes on the Digital Divide, This Time with Data”

  1. maethorechannen

    If the FCC can start working off more accurate data, it can more quickly address a problem that it currently isn’t even sure exists.

    Why do I have a bad feeling that the FCC might view that the existence of small- and medium-sized telecommunications providers (especially ones that need some help from the public sector) as the problem?

  2. greenloco

    First, define broadband.

  3. Daekar

    So this is interesting, although not unexpected if many rural folks have similar choices to what we have. The current internet plan we have at my house is 10mbps down 2mbps up with a 300GB cap, for around $65/month. So by Microsoft's data, I don't have broadband because the actual speed at which I access their servers is slow. However, it's not that it's not available... it's just the price. I can get up to 100mbps down 10mbps up where I live, but it literally costs $200/month for that service. Do I have access to broadband? It would be hard to argue that I don't, since jumping to 25mbps/5mbps costs $80/month, but that still seems high to me given that it still has a data cap and I paid far less for faster service a decade ago in a small town.

    Ultimately, we have no choice but to pay what they ask, because we only have one provider, and internet access is not optional anymore. The speed didn't used to be that much of a problem, but in the cloud era it's a serious bottleneck.

    • bassoprofundo

      In reply to Daekar:

      This is a great point. Capability balanced against cost is a huge consideration. I'm not a big regulation guy normally, but fast & reliable internet connectivity is fast becoming a need rather than a luxury as the world moves on from more "analog" ways of doing things. Depending on your provider and market situation, a reasonable connection can often cost you an unreasonable amount (ex.- My 200/10 connection runs me only $64.99 vs your 100/10 at $200)

      I'm glad you called out caps, too, because there are a bunch of providers that can meet the magical 25/3 but have onerous caps and even charge depending on the amount of the cap (Hello, HughesNet). If the only consideration is that speed metric, we've missed the boat.

  4. skborders

    I think the word use isn't needed here?

    " not use access the Internet at broadband speeds. "

    Truth be told, the primary reason it has not reached many is because many of the people who live in those areas would struggle to pay for it.

    • karlinhigh

      In reply to skborders:

      In 7 years of running a computer shop in a rural town, I have encountered exactly 1 person person who wanted broadband Internet and couldn't afford it.

    • jbinaz

      In reply to skborders:

      Are you basing the assertion that people in rural areas can't afford it on data? If so, what data?

    • Daekar

      In reply to skborders:

      Rural areas have lower income on average, but not THAT much lower. It's not like we're all struggling to make ends meet and only surviving by slaughtering Mama's favorite hog. That's a bunch of nonsense.

      The fact is, it's a geography and population density issue, where a corporation is going to see longer ROI for any given infrastructure they build. The ratio of customers/infrastructure doesn't offer companies incentive to do anything, particularly when the government has insured that they often have monopolies on the right to offer service.

    • Chris_Kez

      In reply to skborders:

      The "primary" reason is they can't afford it? What exactly are you basing this on? I just spent a week in the Ozarks and I can tell you that all the places I visited the issue is not money. These people drive cars and have TVs (satellite) and eat out like everyone else; they just have crappy or no internet because no one is running cables or building towers out there. It's rough terrain and too sparsely populated.

  5. karlinhigh

    "bigger providers—AT&T, Verizon, and so on—have proven uninterested in serving these communities."

    Yessss. Very much so. Here in the USA rural midwest, if something like AT&T is the local phone company it can be a real challenge just getting them to agree they have service in your area. Service of ANY kind - never mind Internet, never mind broadband.

    The local co-op phone companies, on the other hand... many of them are a year or two away from being 100% fiber-to-the-home. They have no choice; cell phones are making their landline phone subscriber count go down year after year. Fiber allows them to offer other services like Internet or IPTV.

    I know of one area where the local phone company is AT&T. A few years ago, the only Internet service there was dial-up. Then the local co-op ELECTRIC company took the opportunity to string fiber cables on their powerline poles. The result? Gigabit up/down Internet for ~$80 USD per month.


    There's a digital divide in that place, all right. But it's the URBAN service not keeping up with rural.

  6. lvthunder

    I think some terms here need to be better defined. What do they consider broadband? Do they consider access it being available or do they consider it as you having it? Liberals tend to say that people who don't have healthcare don't have access to it. When in fact they have access to it they just don't buy it.

    • karlinhigh

      In reply to lvthunder:

      "What do they consider broadband?"

      I wondered about that, too. I also looked for definitions and came up empty. For me it used to seem that always-on DSL was broadband, and dial-up was not. That seems to be the FCC's definition.

      "The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access."

      Where in the USA is always-on, faster-than-dialup Internet service not available?

      Maybe this is a case of ever-expanding expectations?

      Maybe now a broadband service needs to support streaming 4K HDR video.

      And maybe soon broadband will need to enable real-time Oculus Rift sorts of VR experiences.

      If this is the case, the digital divide will never go away. It will stay in existence by re-definition.

    • evox81

      In reply to lvthunder:

      There is definitely some gray area to discuss on this topic.

      To answer your first question: The formal definition of broadband, in the US, currently stands at download speeds of 25mbps.

      And I agree "access" can be a tricky term. Availability and affordability can both be factors that affect access (in both of the topics you oddly chose to include here). But in the case of broadband, availability is the primary factor. Although that's further muddied by the availability (in some places) of "high speed" internet that doesn't meet the 25mbps definition of broadband.

      If we exclude households that don't own a computer of any sort, assuming they have no need for internet access, we're still left with a significant number of people who pay for non-broadband internet. For example, there are still 2.7 million households in the US that pay for dial-up internet service. Even assuming a certain portion of those people do so willingly, because it's "good enough" for them, we're left with a not-insignificant portion of households who are willing to buy internet access, but have no other options.

  7. karlinhigh

    The claim is that broadband Internet service is unavailable to 25 million Americans.

    The proposed solution (in the Microsoft article) includes satellite Internet service.

    Satellite Internet service currently exists - HughesNet and others - and is available most every place in the USA that can see the southern sky.

    I must be misunderstanding something - it seems to me that either those 25 million people already have broadband, or some of Microsoft's plan isn't going to solve the perceived problem.

    I'll accept that satellite isn't the most desirable form of Internet service. But it IS an option for cases where other forms of service are not.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to karlinhigh:

      It all depends on how they define broadband internet service.

    • compunut

      In reply to karlinhigh:

      Until recently, I lived in a rural area. I would take dialup over satellite. Have YOU ever used satellite? It is horrendously bad. With the extreme latency and the tiny data caps, you can't do much with it. You won't be streaming video (data caps), playing video games (latency), or surfing the Internet (latency). You will pay less and have better luck with an air card, an external antenna, and a subscription to a cell service for high speed Internet.

      • karlinhigh

        In reply to compunut:

        I would take dialup over satellite. Have YOU ever used satellite?

        Yes. It's definitely not my favorite. I consider it a last resort. Have you used dial-up lately? Since broadband became widely available, it seems like telephone companies aren't even trying to provide the line quality that dial-up and faxes need.

        The part that confounds me about satellite service here is that the Microsoft article first pretends that it isn't currently an option, and then later proposes it as part of a solution to people not having broadband.

  8. Jeff Jones

    The slow speeds are obviously a lack of competition since nearly every city that has installed its own fiber-to-the-home, has also seen the slow incumbent ISP suddenly triple or quadruple their speeds.

    The ISPs are sitting pretty in most areas and don't feel the need to waste money on upgrading the infrastructure if they can just maintain the status quo and keep raking in the dough every month.

    • HellcatM

      In reply to DataMeister: Exactally. We need more competition. Companies should have to share their lines. They could even ask the other ISP's sharing their lines to pay partly for the fiber they laid and to help with any repairs. The thing is these companies just want all the money to themselves. The Govt is looking at apple and Google for monopolistic practices, they should also be looking at ISP's (and Ticketmaster, but that's another story).

    • Greg Green

      In reply to DataMeister:

      And the cities that don’t install their own broadband probably have long contracts with major ISPs who return the favor by contributing heavily to various elections and political projects. They make wonderful bedfellows.

  9. Patrick3D

    Zero mention of how price affects adoption of broadband, instead they dance around the subject by stating "...some help from the public sector is required as well." Mobile phone operators like Verizon are abandoning expensive wired roll-outs in favor of mobile service upgrades that customers can pay for with LifeLine subsidies. The LifeLine subsidy will only pay for mobile or Internet, but not both. Customers prefer mobile, so by focusing on mobile they can get around the limitation and offer customers both.

  10. Chris_Kez

    The answer here is a Rural Internet Access program comparable to what we did in the 1930's to help people bring electricity to their farms and homes.

  11. red.radar

    Hard for me to ignore that this is a PR facing lobby attempt.

    Microsofts growth will be stunted if they can’t expand the available customer base. Saying “broadband “ is needed is a conflation that connectivity is what is required.

    microsoft needs people to have fat pipes so they can sell cloud services.

    Not saying we shouldn’t do something to improve access to high quality infrastructure but do want to acknowledge I am skeptical of the motivations and recognize there could be a conflict of interest

    • mattbg

      In reply to red.radar:

      I don't disagree that it's business-motivated - most of the cloud companies are complaining about this - but doesn't nearly everyone have simple connectivity available via dial-up if connectivity is all that's required?

      The Internet is increasingly being written for broadband.

      Even with Microsoft's motivations aside, if the government does independently aspire to expand the availability of broadband to its citizens, isn't it better if they have the best data available about the current situation?

      • red.radar

        In reply to mattbg:

        It’s an argument of diminishing returns. Yes connectivity is technically fullfilled with dialup. That is not my point. We are threading a line between high speed which everyone has access to via a cellular connection and broadband which is greater than 25mbs.

        people need connectivity and high speed satisfies that. Broadband just gives you access to cloud services and streaming content. I am less persuaded that people need access to the cloud. They need access to information and connectivity to others. High speed satisfies this requirement for now.

        Giving the the poor access to 5gb of cellular data solves 95% of the problem without having to spend federal tax dollars on new infrastructure

        the issue here isn’t us arguing over if the country should be covered with internet. We are debating if it’s fast enough. I would argue for the critical use cases it is. Now work from home ... streaming content delivery and cloud access. No... but is it a necessity we should fund? I don’t know.

        I need more more convincing the cloud is a critical piece of infrastructure going forward.

        I am am more intrigued by IOT applications and the improved / deeper connectivity that 5g could offer. I think that has a bigger societal impact and that is where the FCC should focus its resources

  12. ajgisler

    And how do they define broadband? I remember Tom Wheeler setting the standard a number of years ago to 25Mb which I think is a ridiculously high standard.

    And so what if 25 million Americans don't have broadband, its not necessary to live, comparing it to electricity is just absurd. You don't have some sort of right to have access to the internet.

    • Jeff Jones

      In reply to ajgisler:

      You are right that it isn't as critical as electricity, it is more akin to public schools.

      The internet has become the primary communication system for the world. Having sections of society without broadband access is almost like having sections of society that can't read or attend a school. They can still survive, but they can't participate on the same level as the rest.

      • ajgisler

        In reply to DataMeister:

        And this is where I lose everybody. I don't want the government providing schools.

        • Daniel D

          In reply to ajgisler:

          Given the standard of public education in the U.S. and the general ignorance of why good education and an understanding of the world you live in is critical for a nation’s economic success, I'm not surprised to read that comment. The fact that a nation with the wealth of the United States, can’t get its shit together and provide a national broadband plan, while still happily dividing itself on political grounds with a level of maturity and understanding of politics typically found in a third world nation is frightening. All of you need to get your act together over there or the last book in a public school will be titled "The decline and fall of the United States".

          I guess the good news is ajgisler, if you get your way, half the population wouldn't be able to read it anyway.

    • Chris_Kez

      In reply to ajgisler:

      You don't have a right to electricity either. Just a few generations ago huge swaths of the United States lived without it. But we recognized that people -- and the country -- would be better off if electricity was widely available and undertook a massive rural electrification effort beginning in the 1930's.

      Is internet the same as electricity? No, but having no internet, or extremely limited internet is definitely a handicap in 2018 and will only become worse. Whether you're talking about schools, banks, government or a whole host of businesses they are increasingly moving online. If you can't participate in this stuff you are going to be left behind; simple as that.

    • Greg Green

      In reply to ajgisler:

      Yes, 25 download and 3 upload. That effectively tripled the number of people without ‘broadband’.

      i don’t mean to be too cynical, but ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.’ And if you don’t have a crisis, change the definition until you do have a crisis.

      • solomonrex

        In reply to Greg Green:

        This is a standard that should be moving up. Just like we didn't keep cars below speeds that horses can trot. The entire point is to spread access to match other nations and prepare for the future.

        Each time America invested in the future - railroads to the West, Highway system (under Republican Eisenhower), AT&T regulations, post office, etc - it has paid off ten fold. Collective action to invest in the future is one thing that made us who we are. It made us competitive in wars, civilized the West and gave us the greatest high education system, too.

  13. HellcatM

    The problem is the FCC is run by a trump supporter and we all know how that goes. They already took away the Net Neutrality laws that Obama wanted, and now I hear they're trying to say its ok to not give unlimited text messaging (for example we could be charged $10 for 100 text messages like back in the day). If they do support this findings there will some how be a big expense to us in the long run.

    A friend of mines father lives in a small town in Montana and when my friend visits him he complains that the internet is awful. It would be nice if every American can get access to broadband. It would also be nice if the US we could get it at a decent cost like in other countries. Part of this would be to get competition in this sector which most areas don't have. Unfortunately that hasn't happened and unless the Govt steps in and changes some laws it won't, it'll just keep getting worse, but with these people (I use that lightly) in office it won't happen.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to HellcatM:

      Net Neutrality laws would make this problem worse. It's not even the net neutrality part that was the issue. It was all the other regulations that got imposed so they could impose the net neutrality stuff. It was the Title II regulations that was imposed on ISP's from the Communications Act of the 1930s. Nothing says progress like technology laws from 80 years ago.

    • Bats

      In reply to HellcatM:

      What??? You need to read this article again and slowly. The problem dates back to the Obama Administration. Trump is trying to push a national 5G. Keep up,dude.

      • HellcatM

        In reply to Bats: I call BS. Wake up! The republican party blocked what Obama wanted to do, and he got some weak net neutrality rules but in but they were something. Now trump put in a an ex Verizon general councel into the FCC (Ajit Pai ). Obana did appoint him a spot at the FCC from a recommendation from mcconell but it was trump who fired the former Democratic chairman (Tom Wheeler) and put in his yes man Pai. trmp doesn't want to do anything but help companies make more money by hiring people who don't know what they're doing or people who will help with his agenda.

    • glenn8878

      In reply to HellcatM:

      I'm sure that Microsoft can persuade Service Provider companies to sell their broadband services much more cheaply so everyone can afford broadband. They all favor the Democratic Party. I'm sure they are willing to do it since it's their political beliefs are similar despite who runs the White House. Maybe not because they are hypocrites. 

      • HellcatM

        In reply to glenn8878: The main providers were against the net neutrality laws. Most of the major ISP's aren't Democratic, I don't know who told you that. These are the same companies that wanted to make fast lanes and slow lanes, that slowed down Netflix and other streaming companies and claimed that net neutrality would make it so they couldn't innovate (which is BS).

    • Chris Payne

      In reply to HellcatM:

      Don't know why you're getting downvoted, everything you've said is true. We need regulation to force these companies to do the right thing. We've seen ISP after ISP tell us they would never throttle, limit access, or charge for services if net neutrality were repealed, but then they do it the second the law was overturned.

    • Greg Green

      In reply to HellcatM:

      So the friend’s father had broadband under Obama and Trump’s FCC chair took it away? That’s terrible.

  14. harmjr

    Big business does not care about rural broadband. Are you Surprised.

    Need to stop all funding to them and re-route it to local small business and governments. Oh wait some have barred the local governments from setting up its own ISP.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to harmjr:

      What funding are you talking about? AT&T and Verizon don't get government funding except to provide services like everyone else pays them.

      • Chris_Kez

        In reply to lvthunder:

        Incorrect. Just search for "government subsidies for AT&T and Verizon" and you will see that they do in fact get subsidies in a range of different ways, and in particular to address the issue of rural internet access. They've just done a terrible job. And meanwhile they've lobbied at every level to block communities from creating their own internet co-op's.

  15. Bob Nelson

    Part of the problem is that small towns have been forced to let companies like Crapcast come in and cherry-pick.

    I grew up in Fairfield County CT. Back in the 70's when they wired our town, they were told in no uncertain terms that they had to wire every road in town, no matter how remote or sparsely populated.

    I live in a small New Hampshire town now, and live on a private road with fairly expensive homes for the area. No cable. We didn't have DSL until 4 years ago when the local phone company finally started to install remote substations with fiber, and then provide DSL if your house was within 3 miles of that substation.

    7mb DSL. WHOOPIE!!

    Crapcast was allowed years ago to come here and decide for themselves which roads they would wire. Last year one of my neighbors requested that they come out and re-survey our road since it's now completely built out.

    Sorry! We were told it's not worth the trouble, even though everybody on the road agreed to sign up if they offered it.

    And I live less than 2 miles from Town Hall, not 10 miles up a mountainside.

    I'm not much for big government interference, but this is one instance where there should be a law that if you come into a town, it's all or nothing, especially if you have a monopoly.

    • ajgisler

      In reply to Bob Nelson:

      I am sorry, but to expect Comcast to wire your street is insane. You have no right to internet or any service.

      Likewise by demanding that an ISP wire every person before they can be in a town means the entire town is likely not to get any service as the ROI is to long. Plus how does that work when new neighborhoods are built? Are they required to then start wiring? What about that 1 person that builds a new house in the middle of nowhere?

      The real problem is that most towns and cities put laws and regulations in place that makes it difficult for an ISP to build and/or have another ISP develop in the same area.

      • lvthunder

        In reply to ajgisler:

        In new neighborhoods it is a negotiation between the utility and the developer who is going to pay to lay the pipes. There is incentive for the developer to do it because it makes the development more desirable. It's also cheaper to do it as the roads are being built.

      • Chris_Kez

        In reply to ajgisler:

        We're not talking about cities, and in many cases there are barely towns. And these places rarely have the kind of zoning and regulation that prohibits build out of infrastructure; if anything they tend to be exceedingly lax. You've hit the nail on the head with ROI, though.

      • trevor_chdwck

        In reply to ajgisler:

        If the ISP is being allowed to run their wires from government poles or across government lands, I completely believe that the government has some say in the conditions of which that ISP uses them / behaves. You forget that the lines run are almost exclusively on grounds owned by the town/state/federal governments. So a compromise is what is most needed, a middle ground between regulation and no regulation, similar to the electrification act.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to Bob Nelson:

      That's an issue for city and county government and not the federal government.

    • Greg Green

      In reply to Bob Nelson:

      “especially if you have a monopoly.”

      Most likely it was your local government that gave the company the monopoly in the first place. That’s where the problem usually starts and stays because voters don’t pay attention.

  16. Bats

    All in all, you need more competition and less regulation. That always brings prices down. You can't regulate something and expect for prices to fall. Never in history had that happened.

    Hopefully 5G will change everything. Add T-Mobile, as well as Verizon Wireless to the list of home ISPs and that should help. Right now, internet costs are already competitive, but only in terms of value. We need costs and that has to happen organically by way of competition.

    Government can't do squat about this. They tried to control costs with energy in the 70s (Carter Administration) and things got worst. Millennials of this generation don't know this because they are all weak snowflakes. That it includes those who write for tech blogs.

  17. MikeGalos

    It's amazing reading these comments that 80 years later we're seeing virtually the same, exact arguments that were happening with getting electricity to low-density rural populations. That took the Roosevelt era's REA program to resolve for pretty much the same reasons cited in the dozens of comments.

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