Halfway through its 5-year rural broadband project, Microsoft said its Airband Initiative is now in 25 states and Puerto Rico.
Started in mid-2017, the Airband Initiative aims to eliminate the rural broadband gap and Microsoft said it's on track to meet its target of expanding high-speed internet to 3 million Americans living in unserved areas by 2022.
“We’ve already reached a total of 633,000 previously unserved people, up from 24,000 people in 2018, and as our partners’ network deployments accelerate over the coming months, we will be reaching many more,” wrote Shelley McKinley, head of technology and corporate responsibility at Microsoft, in a blog post sharing an annual update on the project.
The project focuses on technology utilizing unused broadcast frequencies between TV channels (known as TV white spaces) to help deliver enhanced connectivity coverage in locations where laying cables isn’t possible.
McKinley applauded FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for the agency’s vote last week to move forward on updating TV white space (TVWS) rules, which Microsoft petitioned the FCC for last year.
The updated rules would in part allow higher transmit power and antenna height for fixed white space devices in more rural areas. If adopted the rules could result in better broadband coverage by enabling white space devices to reach users at more distant locations.
While Microsoft praised the FCC’s vote, it’s taken issue with the agency’s reporting on broadband availability and usage. According to the FCC’s 2019 broadband report, 21.3 million people don’t have access to broadband. Microsoft’s own data shows that the problem is much greater and that as of November 2019, about 157.3 million Americans weren’t using the internet at broadband speeds.
“While we are making progress and the reported number is down by six million people from last year, that’s still more than the populations of our eight biggest states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Georgia – combined,” wrote McKinley.
A February report from BroadbandNow also found flaws with the FCC reporting and estimates that 42 million Americans lacked access to wired or fixed wireless broadband.
An inaccurate picture of the broadband problem is particularly problematic as McKinley noted, since federal funds to help expand broadband deployments often rely on government data about which communities lack access,
“As we’ve said from the start of the initiative, without accurate data we cannot fully understand the broadband gap. You cannot solve a problem you don’t understand. More accurate data will help deploy broadband in the places its needed,” she wrote.
Through its Airband Initiative, Microsoft has made pacts with a number of partners to expand broadband access in rural areas, including Wisper Internet, Watch Communications, and Sacred Wind Communications.
McKinley said Microsoft also built strategic partnerships in the last year with American Tower, Tilson, and Zayo Group to help lower end-to-end network deployment costs for rural internet service providers.
In addition to the 25 states, the Airband Initiative pilot programs are happening in North Dakota and Arizona.