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Microsoft Pushes Fast Internet for U.S. Heartland to Bridge Broadband Gap

Technology companies tackle access challenges in rural America after 2016 election shed light on digital divide

Bloomberg Technology

“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 the Trump 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 to local residents. 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 Dylan will attend Old Dominion University, where he plans to study computer science.”

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