Mi­crosoft project helps in­crease on­line ac­cess in ru­ral U.S.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DINA BASS

For years, Mi­crosoft Corp. fo­cused its ef­forts to ex­pand high-speed In­ter­net ac­cess on de­vel­op­ing mar­kets around the world. Now the com­pany is wak­ing up to the prob­lem in its own back­yard, af­ter the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion shed light on how far ru­ral parts of Amer­ica had fallen be­hind cities in re­li­able, fast con­nec­tiv­ity — and the chal­lenges that gap poses for res­i­dents.

Right now, 23.4 mil­lion Amer­i­cans in ru­ral ar­eas can’t get the fast In­ter­net ac­cess in­creas­ingly needed for tasks like home­work, job ap­pli­ca­tions, on­line med­i­cal treat­ment and re­mote re­pairs for farm­ing equip­ment. Over the years, Mi­crosoft de­vel­oped and tested its broad­band soft­ware, along with new chips, de­vices and an­ten­nae, in places in­clud­ing Kenya and Colom­bia. While it has had some U.S. projects, Mi­crosoft largely over­looked its home coun­try in ef­forts to bridge the dig­i­tal di­vide. That mes­sage was un­der­scored in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, when ru­ral vot­ers ex­pressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion and anger over be­ing left out of eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal growth, Mi­crosoft President and Chief Le­gal Of­fi­cer Brad Smith said.

“It’s fair to say the elec­tion raised our level of con­scious­ness, as it did for a great many peo­ple in the coun­try,” Smith said. “It cer­tainly caused us to re­flect on the fact that we had been pur­su­ing these projects to a greater de­gree in ru­ral Africa than ru­ral Amer­ica. We’d been in­volved in Asia and other con­ti­nents more so than in our own coun­try.”

Since the elec­tion, some tech com­pa­nies have been among those pay­ing closer at­ten­tion to the fad­ing of the American Dream for some parts of the coun­try. In some cases, they’ve found tech­nol­ogy made in­equal­ity worse for those who can’t ac­cess it. Face­book co-founder and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Mark Zucker­berg has been trav­el­ing across the U.S., talk­ing with truck­ers in Wal­cott, Iowa; din­ing with So­mali refugees in Minneapolis; and clean­ing fish and pho­tograph­ing ea­gles in ru­ral Alaska.

“It’s ter­rific that Mark has been do­ing what he’s do­ing. One of the points he’s mak­ing is a valu­able one — that one of the best ways to learn about a place is to go visit it,” Smith said. “At the end of the day we will and should be judged by our deeds and not just our words. That’s one of the rea­sons we have been so fo­cused, not just on learn­ing more, but on do­ing new things.”

One of the big­gest ways Mi­crosoft thinks it can make a dif­fer­ence is by bring­ing speed­ier on­line ser­vice to these ar­eas — a pro­gram it’s call­ing the Ru­ral Air­band Ini­tia­tive — and help­ing other com­pa­nies do the same. The ef­fort also lets the com­pany tap into a pri­or­ity for President Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, whose prom­ise to ex­pand broad­band ser­vice is part of a $1 tril­lion na­tion­wide in­fra­struc­ture plan.

Mi­crosoft has been try­ing out the sys­tem in Char­lotte and Hal­i­fax coun­ties, two ru­ral re­gions in south­ern Vir­ginia. The com­pany cov­ers the costs of cap­i­tal in­vest­ments to start the ser­vice through lo­cal telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, many of which are small, some­times fam­ily-owned, and can’t af­ford or risk the up-front in­vest­ment. Once up and run­ning, the car­rier will give Mi­crosoft a share of the rev­enue. The soft­ware maker will plow those funds into con­nect­ing a new re­gion. Mi­crosoft it­self has no plan to en­ter the tele­com mar­ket or to make money di­rectly from this ser­vice, Smith said. The com­pany’s phi­lan­thropy arm, work­ing with the Na­tional 4-H Coun­cil, will pro­vide dig­i­tal-skills train­ing lo­cally. Smith de­clined to say how much Mi­crosoft will spend on the over­all plan.

Al­ready Mi­crosoft’s ef­forts in Vir­ginia are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence to peo­ple like Gwen Har­ris and her col­lege-bound son Dy­lan, who just grad­u­ated from high school and con­cur­rently earned an as­so­ciate de­gree from a com­mu­nity col­lege through a spe­cial pro­gram at his school. The fam­ily had a dial-up In­ter­net con­nec­tion un­til switch­ing to a pricey satel­lite hookup about four years ago. But the sys­tem was still too slow and un­re­li­able to down­load the re­search Dy­lan needed for pa­pers or to up­load them to pro­fes­sors (Once a crit­i­cal paper never made it to the in­struc­tor.) And the mul­ti­ple math videos he had to watch ate up the lim­ited data avail­able in their plan. About two years ago, Dy­lan came home from school with a flyer ask­ing for vol­un­teers to test Mi­crosoft’s project. It took a lit­tle time to iron out the kinks, said Gwen Har­ris, but over the past year it has been re­li­able and fast, mak­ing a big dif­fer­ence in Dy­lan’s com­mu­nity col­lege classes.

“I just think it’s won­der­ful that broad­band In­ter­net has reached ru­ral Amer­ica and that our kids can be com­pet­i­tive with the rest of the world,” she said. Next year Dy­lan will at­tend Old Do­min­ion Univer­sity, where he plans to study com­puter science.

Mi­crosoft’s own in­vest­ments will pro­vide ac­cess to less than 10 per­cent of the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion cur­rently with­out broad­band, so the soft­ware maker is ask­ing other com­pa­nies and the gov­ern­ment to get in­volved. Mi­crosoft will share the tech­nol­ogy as well as re­lated patents for free.

For the sys­tem to work, Mi­crosoft says the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, the U.S. agency that reg­u­lates air­waves, needs to al­low broader use of the ra­dio spec­trum around the na­tion. The com­pany is ask­ing for three chan­nels. The pro­posal is just one among com­pet­ing ideas for us­ing air­wave space that’s be­ing re­ar­ranged as the FCC squeezes TV broad­cast­ers to make more room for wire­less data.

AP/CAROLYN KASTER

Brad Smith, president and chief le­gal of­fi­cer of Mi­crosoft, speaks Tues­day in Washington about Mi­crosoft’s project to bring broad­band In­ter­net ac­cess to ru­ral parts of the United States.

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