Microsoft research shows broadband access, critical to expanded economic opportunity in rural communities, remains too limited

Rural communities continue to lag in access to high-speed broadband. The New York Times reports on new research from Microsoft showing that the digital divide is significantly greater than previously stated. 

A new study by Microsoft researchers casts a light on the actual use of high-speed internet across the country, and it presents a very different picture than the FCC numbers. Their analysis, presented at a Microsoft event Tuesday in Washington, D.C., suggests that the speedy access is much more limited than the FCC data shows.

Overall, Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, while the FCC says that broadband is not available to 24.7 million Americans. The discrepancy is particularly stark in rural areas. In Ferry County, for example, Microsoft estimates that only about 2 percent of people use broadband service, versus the 100 percent that the federal government says have access to the service.

We’ve previously written about the challenge, noting evidence that millennials are moving to rural areas that have broadband access. In July 2017, we cited Microsoft’s concern with expanding access, seen as an urgent problem then even using the FCC’s low estimate.

Rural economies also depend on technology. And Microsoft has recently unveiled a strategy for expanding broadband to underserved rural communities. Earlier this month, Microsoft president Brad Smith presented the company’s thoughts on the broadband gap

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 21st century 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.

The NYT report goes on,

The Microsoft analysis also includes county unemployment data, which points to the strong correlation between joblessness and low rates of broadband use. The unemployment rate in Ferry County, for example, is 11 percent, more than twice the statewide rate.

“The worst place to be is in a place where there is no access to the technology everyone else is benefiting from,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith…

A key challenge is bringing down the cost of devices that use white-space technology. In mid-2017, they cost $800, but are now just $300, Microsoft says. The goal is to get the price to $100.

Last year, Microsoft announced plans to work with local internet providers and hardware companies to propel the adoption of white-space technology. To date, the company says it has deals in 13 states — including Washington — to bring broadband to more than 1 million people in rural areas.

In a December 3 article on the Microsoft site, “The rural broadband divide: An urgent national problem that we can solve,” Smith examines strategies for closing the gap.

Closing the digital divide will go a long way toward closing the urban-rural economic divide. Progress is welcome.