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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