We are living in a new world, a world racing online as social distancing forces many of us to work, communicate and connect in new ways. In the United States alone, state and local directives have urged 316 million Americans to stay in and, when possible, work from home. As communities around the world adapt to a world with COVID-19, broadband connectivity and access are more critical to our lives and livelihoods than ever before.
Broadband already powers much of our modern lives, but COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant, a fuel of sorts that has driven many essential activities online. All learning, services, commerce, most workplaces and daily interactions online require a high-speed connection to the internet. Those without access to this online world – more that 18 million Americans with 14 million living in rural areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission – risk falling farther behind. While 18 million is a big number – more than the entire populations of Indiana, Iowa and Tennessee combined – a new study has found that the actual number of people lacking access to broadband in the US is closer to 42 million.
A problem intensified by COVID-19
Lack of broadband for rural populations, both in the United States and in the developing world, just can’t be ignored. That’s why, in the last three months, we’ve doubled down on our Microsoft Airband Initiative to expand the number of people reached. As of March 31, we’ve helped provide 1.2 million people with access to broadband in rural, previously unserved areas of the United States. This is almost double our total from December 31, 2019, and up from 24,000 people in the whole of 2018. We’re doing the most recent work by donating hotspots and wireless connectivity equipment, and expanding our digital skills offerings by developing COVID-19-specific digital skills offerings for rural communities.
The COVID-19 virus has created a national crisis. But it has also created an important opportunity. It’s time to galvanize the nation and recognize the obvious. Broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century. Well before the end of the 20th century, we recognized that no American should live without electricity. As we embark on the third decade of the 21st century, every American deserves the opportunity to access broadband…
…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>
This isn’t some one-off PR move by Microsoft, they have a real commitment to Veterans companywide. It didn’t start with Satya Nadella, but he has enhanced it during his tenure. Even though I was not a veteran, most of my family was, so I have an appreciation for those that chose to serve.
Our nation’s Veterans have contributed to our country in so many ways, in countless locations around the globe. When they return home, many Veterans who reside in rural areas are not able to access broadband internet which is critical to using telehealth services, gaining educational opportunities, and growing a small business or running a family farm.
There are 2.7 million Veterans enrolled in Veterans Affairs (VA) who are living in rural communities, 42% of them do not have internet access at home which could support their use of VA telehealth services, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’, Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Rural Health. These rural Veterans live in areas where access to fast, reliable internet service may be limited or inaccessible and are facing higher rates of unemployment, longer drives to reach the nearest clinics and medical centers, and lower levels of educational attainment compared to their urban counterparts. Connectivity has the potential to improve this reality — with broadband, they can access telehealth services offered by the VA, identify and compete for well-paying jobs, improve and grow their own businesses, and take advantage of online education classes.
Microsoft and VA have been strategic partners, working together to improve the lives of Veterans, for more than 20 years. Today, I’m excited to share that Microsoft will begin expanding that work by helping VA to help bring connectivity to many Veterans living in rural towns and communities. Microsoft and its partners will be working with VA to provide capital, technology expertise, and training resources to bring broadband access to people in these underserved communities. Our hope is that this effort will unlock new economic opportunities, while also enhancing quality of life.
Through the partnership, we’ll help VA identify communities with Veterans in need and work with our internet service provider (ISP) partners across the nation to bring broadband services to those regions. Following our Airband Initiative model, we’ll also provide the Veterans in these newly connected communities with digital skills training so they can take advantage of the tools and services connectivity enables, including critical telehealth services provided by VA.
In the past 22 months, through the Microsoft Airband Initiative, we have seen firsthand just how many communities lack connectivity at broadband speeds and how this can hinder growth and new opportunities. We’ve also seen that partnering with ISPs to serve those most in need is an effective strategy to make progress quickly on this important issue. Our work with VA builds on those lessons and approach, which has resulted in partnerships that will bring connectivity to 1 million unserved rural residents in 16 states to date, with a plan to reach 3 million by 2022…
Microsoft recently hosted a screening of the documentary film “Netizens”, which examines the online harassment of women and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, what is commonly but unartfully referred to as “revenge porn.” The event, which included a multi-stakeholder panel discussion, underscores the need for all groups to work together to tackle online hate and abuse and to promote digital civility and safer and more respectful online interactions.
At Microsoft, we believe “whole society” strategies hold the greatest promise for addressing issues like online harassment and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. It was nearly four years ago that we announced our approach to the non-consensual distribution of intimate images on our consumer services. At the time, we sought to put victims back in control of their privacy, stating that when contacted by a victim or his or her representative, Microsoft would remove links to photos and videos from Bing search results and remove the content itself when it was shared on OneDrive or Xbox Live. We created a dedicated web form for making such reports to us.
Digital civility and ‘Netizens’
In addition, Microsoft was eager to collaborate with Lowen and her team given the close alignment to our own ongoing campaign for digital civility, fostering safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions among all people. Our work in digital civility started in 2016, and we’re about to field our fourth installment of global perception and attitudinal research. Each year, we survey teens and adults about their exposure to more than 20 online risks, including “sexploitation” and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.
To learn more about the film, visit the “Netizens” website and consult these Microsoft resources: online bullying and harassment factsheet, risks of sexting factsheet. For more on general online safety issues, visit our website and resources page. And, for regular news and information about online safety, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.
Every day, our world becomes a little more digital. But reaping the benefits of this digital world – pursuing new educational opportunities through distance learning, feeding the world through precision agriculture, growing a small business by leveraging the cloud, and accessing better healthcare through telemedicine – is only possible for those with a broadband connection, a link not available to at least 25 million people, 19 million of whom live in this country’s rural areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
This lack of connectivity has a very real impact on economic well-being. There are at least six independent studies that show that broadband has a direct impact on jobs and GDP growth. Our analysis shows that the counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage (and broadband access).
Despite the importance of this issue, we are not making very much progress in closing the broadband gap. In the past five years, there’s been more than $22 billion in subsidies and grants to carriers to sustain, extend and improve broadband in rural America. But adoption has barely budged.
My favorite US-based tech company, behind Canada’s Corel and Norway & Iceland’s Vivaldi, is at it again. Just because you live in the hinterlands should not determine that you are a second-class digital citizen. Or for that matter, certain urban neighborhoods not unlike where I live in Charlotte and similar cities. This has to be done by large tech companies not tied to mobile bandwidth due to its data cap limitations via its business model. Below comes from Microsoft President Brad Smith in a blog post:
Every day the world is becoming more digital. Cloud computing combined with new productivity, communication and intelligent tools and services enable us to do more, do it more quickly and in ways that were simply unimaginable a generation ago. But participating in this new era requires a high-speed broadband connection to the internet. While it’s a service that is as critical as a phone or electricity, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband is unavailable to roughly 25 million Americans, more than 19 million of which live in rural communities. That’s roughly the population of New York state.
The broadband gap is a solvable issue
At Microsoft we believe this is an urgent national problem that can and must be solved. In the summer of 2017 we called for a national effort and set an ambitious goal — to eliminate the country’s rural broadband gap by July 4, 2022. Closing the broadband gap will require a focused and comprehensive solution that combines private sector capital investment in innovative technologies with targeted financial and regulatory support from the public sector.
For the past 18 months we’ve contributed to this effort through our Microsoft Airband Initiative, a five-year commitment to bring broadband access to 2 million unserved Americans living in rural communities. During this time, we’ve accomplished and learned a lot.
Raising our ambition as a company, and a country
While we’ve made significant progress, we know there’s a lot more to do to bring broadband to every American. That’s why we are raising our ambition as a company and encourage the federal, state and local governments to do the same.
This is the main reason behind the purchase of Sprint by T-Mobile, it’s their spectrum holdings, not necessarily their customer base. Disclosure: A current T-Mobile customer, a former customer of Sprint in the 3G data only when I was an OTR trucker.
Also interesting, as much as the story itself is the comments. Mostly on topic, but demonstrates a wide gap between perceived coverage and actual coverage, even in some cases one county removed from a major or mid-sized city.
It’s been touted that 5G is the answer to get broadband internet service to rural parts of the U.S., but like everything else, it isn’t that simple. 5G has the potential to cover everyone in the United States because it’s deployed so differently to current broadband solutions like cable and satellite (and fiber, but that’s still a pipe dream for most of the world), and the equipment used for a cell “tower” is much smaller and cheaper to build and deploy than running wire.
This will allow for planning a 5G network not only in places like Chicago or Los Angeles but Western Washington and Appalachia, too. Narrowband 5G can also connect up to 100-times more clients than existing tech and has 10-times the range. It sounds like the answer.
To become the answer, though, a few other things need to be discussed. The biggest hurdle, according to industry partners ready to profit by providing 5G access, is spectrum licensing. While the narrowband 5G mentioned above does have 10-times more range than existing services can provide, a more realistic look using the spectrum available and messy standards we have now mean you would need a small-site 5G station spaced only a few hundred feet apart according to NTCA Senior VP of Industry Affairs Michael Romano.
The linked article below spends time talking about POTUS45’s FCC that is led by Ajit Pai. After his stance on Net Neutrality that is the subject of much controversy, some would question his commitment to an expansion of mHealth to serve everyone, regardless of location in America. Matters are not helped when a distinct beneficiary of the changes he proposes is one of his former employers. This used to be called a conflict of interest; now it is business as usual.
The paper and linked article both cover seven points that the publication aims for:
Promote Effective Policy and Regulatory Solutions That Encourage Broadband Adoption and Promote Health IT
Identify Regulatory Barriers (and Incentives) to the Deployment of RF-Enabled Advanced Health Care Technologies and Devices
Strengthen the Nation’s Telehealth Infrastructure Through the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program and Other Initiatives
Raise Consumer Awareness About the Value Proposition of Broadband in the Health Care Sector and its Potential for Addressing Health Care Disparities
Enable the Development of Broadband-Enabled Health Technologies That are Designed to be Fully Accessible to People With Disabilities
Highlight Effective Telehealth Projects, Broadband-Enabled Health Technologies, and mHealth Applications Across the Country and Abroad—To Identify Lessons Learned, Best Practices, and Regulatory Challenges
Engage a Diverse Array of Traditional and Non-Traditional Stakeholders To Identify Emerging Issues and Opportunities in the Broadband Health Space
(mHealthIntelligence, 2017) & (“2017-09309.pdf,” n.d., pp. 3–9)
All of these initiatives are all meaningful and comprehensive. However, one very important aspect was missing from all of this: No mention on how to pay for this. I searched through the entire document, and nothing came up for either Medicare or Medicaid; Therein lies the problem. The very constituency that is most at risk for mHealth and can derive the most benefit from it have few means of actually paying for it. This is not to say that the underserved and rural populations do not resources, but a glaring omission of this magnitude makes for inept policy. A comment period is posted, so the odds of this being addressed are pretty good.
The dominant medical provider in my market has a Virtual Visit service that is $49, requires a Credit Card, and not covered by Medicare/Medicaid. (“Virtual Visit | 24/7 Online Urgent Care | Carolinas HealthCare System,” n.d.) There is one other important requirement, you must physically be in North Carolina at the time of visit. A reasonable assumption is the system has geofencing capabilities to enforce this. DMCA and other issues arise if using a VPN to spoof locations; have not and will not tempt fate here. The other medical provider has a similar setup and pricing, however, you must already be in their network/system. Either way, the costs remain a barrier, not the technology.
2017-09309.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2017-05-10/pdf/2017-09309.pdf
mHealthIntelligence. (2017, May 11). FCC Seeks Input on Broadband Expansion for mHealth, Telehealth. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from http://mhealthintelligence.com/news/fcc-seeks-input-on-broadband-expansion-for-mhealth-telehealth
Virtual Visit | 24/7 Online Urgent Care | Carolinas HealthCare System. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2017, from http://www.carolinashealthcare.org/virtualvisit
One of the towns listed in this article is some 215 miles NNE of where my story originates. It is one of the few relatively populated places that I haven’t visited in North Carolina. While it’s not surprising that the North Carolina General Assembly passes laws in direct conflict with most of the constituents, this one seems especially egregious. There are some opinionated hints to why this may be the case.
As you can see, this is a smallish type of community. Also one that is majority minority, according to official government numbers. A bill that is being debated on address this: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Bills/Senate/HTML/S208v1.html. Now that the recent #HB2 “semi-repeal” got done, there may be hope full that it, with a Democratic governor will pass as well. However, the legislature is still in the control of the party that opposes such measures, so don’t hold your breath for change just yet.
In a way, proper blog writing is akin to academic writing, without most of the APA (American Psychological Association) baked writing standards in Academicstan, you know, the same land that banishes Wikipedia to 3rd class citizen standards. The name Fertile Mind was chosen because this author attempts to think outside the box when it comes to getting a point across. It may seem quirky and non-conformist at times, but the charge is to never be dull. This blog will take the KISS (Keep It Simple for Students) mantra and will replace Students with Straightforward (Newby, et al., 2003). Along those lines are clear and succinct prose and argument making. Students and educators lead busy lives, no point in wasting their time with word salad. Minds can wander, blog posts cannot; topic limitation becomes paramount for success. Simple, low resolution graphics that are incorporated because most of the audience is still on 1st generation “broadband” or even dial-up that have visited the blog for information, education, or even entertainment. Navigation support is built-in this and other blogs via templates which also covers accessibility. The list continues for all of the tips that the “experts” state leading to a successful blog site. The level of success is to be determined over time.
Newby, T. J., Stepich, D. A., Lehman, J. D., Russell, J. D., & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. (2011). Educational technology for teaching and learning (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.