Half the US population cannot access the Internet at broadband speeds, according to Microsoft, despite the Federal Communications Commission's oft-quoted report that 92% of Americans are connected at acceptable rates.
The discrepancy comes, in part, because the FCC bases its data on census blocks. That means if an ISP sells broadband to at least one customer within a "census block," the federal agency then concludes that geographic measurement has broadband service. A census block is not a constant measurement, like a kilometer or mile. Rather, it is inconsistent: In Alaska, for example, one census block is 8,500 square miles, according to "An Update on Connecting Rural America," the 2018 Microsoft Airband Initiative.
Secondly, the agency asks if an ISP "could... without an extraordinary commitment of resources" provide service to a census block. If the ISP answers positively, that block is considered covered -- even if residents have no broadband access, said Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, in a web broadcast today.
As a result, the FCC determined only 8% of Americans do not have broadband Internet access, defined as 25Mbit/s download, 3Mbit/s upload. That adds up to 23 million Americans, 19 million of them living in rural communities.
In its ongoing studies of consumer usage, Pew Research found 58% of rural residents have broadband Internet in January 2018, versus 70% of suburban and 67% of urban dwellers. These are users, not people, "with access to broadband," stressed Smith.
But Microsoft's own research -- based on data generated from the more than 200 services Microsoft offers, coupled with other relevant information -- yielded a harsher reality, he said. Touring the country, visiting regions the FCC qualified as covered by broadband whose residents were not able to log-on to wired services at home (or even, sometimes, at Main Street businesses), only underscored what the digital divide actually means to people, Smith related in a presentation from Washington, DC, today.
The cloud and software provider was on-hand to discuss its Airband program, the state of broadband adoption across the country and why this is such a critical concern. Today, Microsoft Airband Initiative announced serving customer number 1 million. Since it's now running ahead of schedule to achieve its original goal of bringing broadband access to 2 million people, Microsoft today said it's upping the ante for the program. (See Microsoft & Partners Fill Rural Divide With White Spaces Broadband.)
"Given our early progress, today we are raising our goal and increasing our commitment. We will pursue work to extend broadband access to 3 million Americans in rural areas by July 2022," Smith wrote. "By this time next year, we will expand our Airband Initiative to reach 25 states. In these states we will both pursue Airband infrastructure projects and expand the work we are doing to offer skills training in rural communities. We will also continue to advocate for public policies to accelerate the investment in TV white spaces technologies that are needed."
Microsoft will continue working with ISPs. And as volume increases, prices come down: In the past 18 months or so, the technology costs have dropped: initially a TV white spaces network connectivity device cost $800-plus, whereas today similar or even better devices are priced at less than $300, noted Smith.
"As the price of new technology falls and demand rises, these prices will continue to fall -- a critical goal -- and this market will become self-sustaining," he said. "We see this entrepreneurial and innovative American spirit in an emerging TV white spaces ecosystem that has taken root. We are working with a consortium of component and device makers which are producing affordable, innovative TV white spaces technology [ISPs] and consumers. We are supporting ISPs by providing some funding for upfront capital costs for broadband infrastructure projects with the possibility of recovering our investment through revenue sharing."
Thus, Microsoft is not competing with service providers -- although it most certainly is no fan of hard-wired access. Cable or wired solutions slow adoption, he said. Fixed wireless access, LTE and 5G, TV white spaces and other wireless solutions provide operators with the flexibility and speed to deliver revenue-bearing networks to remote residential customers, ending the digital divide and opening up well-deserved opportunities to rural customers, said Smith.
"We are not in this business to make money," Smith noted. "We are not in this business to become a telco."
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.