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Microsoft's Smith Urges Congress to Fund Rural Buildouts

Microsoft president Brad Smith called on Congress to take a holistic approach to funding that could close the digital divide.  

"The COVID-19 virus has created a national crisis," he blogged, "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."  

Smith pointed to the COVID-19 spotlight on lack of rural broadband to call on Congress to do three things to speed that rollout: 

First is funding for broadband in the next stimulus bill, he wrote, "so that students and teachers have access to remote learning, people have access to their doctors and other telehealth options, and to help people work from home, file and maintain their unemployment benefits, and apply for jobs online." 

Related: COVID-19 Crisis Hits Industry

Those three are the chief spurs to Congress and the FCC to close the digital divide ASAP since it is unclear how long some degree of shelter-at-home and social distancing will last. Likely until at least a vaccine is available, which looks like the end of the year at the absolute earliest. 

Second is getting funds to the FCC so it can fund a congressional mandate to come up with better mapping of where broadband is and isn't. FCC chair Ajit Pai told Congress this week that the FCC needs that money ASAP. 

Third is to permanently close the broadband gap via funds that are targeted, technologically neutral, tied to baseline definitions of high-speed no less than the FCC's definition (currently 25 mbps downstream), distributed via competitive bidding, distributed so as not to distort the market, deployed quickly, and with minimum red tape.  

Smith said those are the keys to closing the gap. 

But Smith did not leave all the work to Congress. It has an ongoing Airband Initiative using TV white spaces to deliver broadband to hard-to-reach rural areas. He says as of March 31, Microsoft has provided 1.2 million people with access in rural, previously unserved, areas, almost twice the number at the end of December. In addition, he said Microsoft was donating hotspots and wireless connectivity as well as "expanding our digital skills offerings by developing COVID-19-specific digital skills offerings for rural communities."