…In the summer of 2017, we launched the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which brings broadband connectivity to people living in underserved rural areas. To eliminate the rural broadband gap, we bring together private–sector capital investment in new technologies and rural broadband deployments with public–sector financial and regulatory support. We set an ambitious goal: to provide access to broadband to three million people in unserved rural areas of the United States by July 4, 2022. At two and a half years since launch, we are at the halfway point of the time we gave ourselves to meet this goal and we feel good about the steady progress we’ve made and how much we have learned. But one thing we have learned is that the problem is even bigger than we imagined.
The broadband gap is wide but solvable
Beth’s horse-borne approach to connectivity may be unique, but the problem is not: According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC)2019 broadband report, more than 21 million people in America, nearly 17 million of whomlive in rural communities, don’t have access to broadband.
Steady progress to close the broadband gap
There’s good news about the cost of connectivity. The price of TV white spaces devices (TVWS) – a new connectivity technology that’s particularly useful in rural areas where laying cable simply isn’t an option – continues to drop. In the last year, the cost of customer equipment has plummeted by 50%, all while achievable speeds have increased tenfold.
What comes after connectivity?
As we’ve connected communities across the country, we’ve kept asking ourselves a central, key question: What comes after connectivity?
Broadband connections aren’t a panacea for all that ails rural America. Simply plugging in an ethernet cable doesn’t create jobs, increase farmers’ yields or provide a veteran with healthcare. Rural communities need resources beyond infrastructure to rebuild and lift themselves up. That’s why much of our work goes well beyond connectivity.
For generations, farmers throughout North Dakota have traditionally hired seasonal farm hands to help with planting, harvesting and other jobs. Digital technologies and big data are transforming agriculture. Today, those same farmers need to hire technologists, programmers and data scientists to improve productivity to meet food demands, boost yields to increase profitability, environmentally sustain the land and improve safety. But, according to the consulting firm Accenture, less than 20 percent of acreage today is managed using digital ag tech.
Grand Farm In West Coast tech corridors 1,800 miles away, technologists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are coming up with their next big ag tech ideas. But too often those ideas are disconnected from the farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses the technology is meant to help. We believe meaningful innovation will happen when farmers are a part of the solution.
Drone investment Our TechSpark signature investment in the Grand Farm will leverage projects like a TechSpark North Dakota investment we made earlier this year in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which most people know as drones, to provide access to low-cost aerial data imagery. Gov. Burgum, local businesses, universities and economic development organizations in North Dakota have an ambition to be the epicenter of U.S. drone innovation and entrepreneurism.We also plan on leveraging Microsoft technologies like those used in FarmBeats at the Grand Farm. FarmBeats uses AI in data-driven farming to augment human knowledge and help increase farm productivity and decrease costs. It uses inexpensive IoT sensors, drones, low-cost broadband connectivity using TV white spaces, and vision and machine learning algorithms to help maximize the use of agricultural land. FarmBeats gives farmers precise information about soil temperatures and soil moisture so they know exactly when the best times are for planting, watering and fertilizing, as well as the precise amount of water and fertilizer needed.
Rural broadband Getting data from the farm is extremely difficult given there is often no broadband available on many farms. In the U.S., more than 19 million people living in rural America don’t have access to broadband internet. The farm of the future requires rural broadband.
Digital skills and employability Ag tech innovation and broadband-connected farms require the right talent – people who know how to create and use new ag technology.
This starts with students in the region, who need the opportunity to study computer science in high school if they are to succeed in the digital era. But only 45 percent of U.S. high schools teach computer science, according to the nonprofit Code.org. Microsoft’s Technology and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program is helping schools across the nation and British Columbia build their own computer science programs through partnerships between teachers and volunteers from the technology sector.
Living in a urban center, I never really thought about the bandwidth requirements for video telehealth, but mandates to bring it to places that are still on effectively dial-up or 3G speeds are short-sighted at best. Then again, my local providers of such services aren’t covered by Medicaid here in North Carolina (or if they are, that’s certainly not promoted!).
A new study finds that states that mandate video-based telemedicine may be curbing access to care for underserved populations that don;t have the broadband to use video.
I have detailed previously here, here, and here in this blog how Microsoft, while not being alone in major tech companies such as Google and Facebook providing Internet access worldwide, is the company with the most potential to reach everyone. Now that their initiative is proven in the United States, now time to reach the world with Airband 2.0 (my term).
Microsoft is expanding its Airband Initiative—an effort to bring broadband Internet access to unserved 3 million residents in the U.S.—to become a global initiative.
Last year, the world reached a major modern milestone – as of 2018, half of the world’s population is online with some form of internet connection. The bad news is that, despite this progress, this status quo still puts billions of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Leaving half the world without access to the electricity of today’s age – internet access, and increasingly at broadband speeds – means that existing inequalities, poverty and insecurity will persist, worsen and become increasingly difficult to address.
Efforts to accelerate internet access globally, with a focus on developing nations, are not new. But it’s clear that the world needs a new approach to this work. The UN State of Broadband Report found that broadband adoption has slowed, and progress is especially elusive in low-income countries and rural areas across the globe. Most of the connected population relies on low speed, basic cellular services and only 14.1% of the global population has an in-home internet subscription.
How the program will work
Like our work in the U.S., our goal is to empower local partners who know their communities’ geographies and needs to solve their community’s last mile connectivity challenges. Experience has taught us that diverse challenges require diverse solutions. What works in one part of South Africa may not be a fit for Ghana. A wireless technology or a business model that is suitable for connecting customers in one location might not be suitable for connecting customers in another location. Bringing broadband access to the world’s unserved communities will require much greater reliance on innovative technologies, regulatory approaches and business models. Our experience has shown us that a multi-stakeholder approach is needed to close the connectivity gap. While we might go faster alone, we go much farther together. For this reason, these programs seek to combine our and our partners’ expertise and assets.
Airband International will rely on a four-part approach:
Removing regulatory obstacles to TV White Space (TVWS) and other technologies that help our partners extend their networks quickly in unserved, predominantly rural, areas.
Partnering with local internet service providers (ISPs) to provide affordable, reliable internet services.
Enabling rural digital transformation in newly connected areas, with a focus on supporting agriculture, education, rural entrepreneurship and telemedicine, as well as off-grid energy sources where necessary in order to improve rural productivity and livelihood.
Building a larger ecosystem of support, with a focus on stimulating international financing, to scale connectivity projects beyond our own direct investments.
Early signs of success
We know that new technologies like TVWS can be incredibly useful in meeting rural connectivity needs at an affordable price. However, regulatory frameworks in many parts of the world have not kept pace with innovation. We’ve seen great progress from engagements to date. In Colombia, as we started our work to create a long-term solution for the Meta region, we sat down with the national spectrum regulator to understand the region’s needs, existing regulations and to determine any gaps. In Ghana, we partnered with government officials to ensure strong regulations were in place to deploy long-term solutions such as TVWS.
Once these hurdles are removed, partners around the world are poised to move quickly and deliver big results. BLUETOWN is a connectivity and digital content service provider committed to making broadband connectivity more accessible. With regulations in Ghana now permitting access to the TVWS, BLUETOWN is on a path to bring affordable broadband access to over 800,000 people living in the rural eastern part of Ghana who were previously underserved.
These large-scale gains in connectivity are not limited to smaller countries, nor does it stop at connectivity alone. In Colombia, with coffee company Lavazza, ALO partners, Makaia and Microsoft’s support, a small project connected two schools and five farms to broadband via TVWS technology – perfect technology for the region’s jungled and mountainous terrain. It has continued to grow, and now includes an agreement between Lavazza, Microsoft and the National Coffee Growers Association of Colombia that will result in the rural digital transformation for half a million small coffee farmers in the region. Additionally, Airband has co-invested with ISPs in Colombia to extend broadband access to 6 million rural Colombians – that’s 12% of Colombia’s total population.
To close the digital divide once and for all, we need to act to connect the world quickly. This will require the engagement of companies like Microsoft, but importantly, the financial support of international financing organizations around the world. Internet connectivity and technology infrastructure has made up a very small percentage of development bank funding historically, and that will need to change to bring connectivity to the more than three billion people around the globe who lack access to some form of internet connection. To help tackle these challenges, international financing organizations also need to be willing to make bets on local entrepreneurs deploying innovative new technologies and business models better suited to reaching the remaining unconnected communities.
It’s been clear to us for some time that the digital divide in this country is an urgent national crisis that must be solved. Since 2017, we’ve been working with internet service providers to do just that, through our Airband Initiative, and we’re on track to cover 3 million Americans in unserved rural areas by 2022.
It’s encouraging to see this issue rise in national prominence, through funding from the administration, congressional legislation and most recently new proposals introduced by several candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. While there’s been some progress already, solving the broadband gap will require active engagement as well as effective policy proposals from all parts of the public sector.
It’s time to recognize that inequal access to broadband translates into inequality of opportunity. People in rural areas that lack broadband face higher unemployment rates, see fewer job and economic opportunities and place children from these communities behind their suburban and peers in school. Of course, this is not just a rural issue – broadband deserts exist within very urban areas as well, where costs can be unaffordable and availability non-existent...<snip>