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Microsoft Courts Rural America, And Politicians, With High-Speed Internet

"We should be around the world. But we should also be focused on our own backyards," Microsoft President Brad Smith says.
Elaine Thompson

Microsoft is announcing a new effort to connect more people to the Internet. Not people far away, in the so-called emerging markets — where other American tech giants have built Internet balloons and drones. Instead, Microsoft is focusing right here at home, on the 23.4 million people in rural America without broadband access.

The largest companies in the U.S. — by market value — are the Internet giants. But these companies have a bad reputation when it comes to American workers. Tech is known for sending jobs overseas, and now for racing to automate — that is, kill jobs still here.

That said, something is changing in the zeitgeist of the tech industry.

"We perhaps looked less than we should have at what was happening in rural America," Microsoft President Brad Smith says. "We went overseas, and that's a good thing. We should be around the world. But we should also be focused on our own backyards."

Or farmlands.

Millions of people in rural America don't have the Internet connectivity that those in cities take for granted. Microsoft is pledging to get 2 million rural Americans online, in a five-year plan; and the company is going to push phone companies and regulators to help get the whole 23.4 million connected.

This population is not an important customer base compared with the rest of Microsoft's business. But rural America is important politically, as Smith himself admits. "This announcement is connected to the events of the last year," he says. "I think last year's election was a wake-up call."

For the many people who feel left behind economically, who said it by voting for President Trump, he says, "This is a step to serve them better."

In some rural areas, parents have to drive their kids to the parking lot of the local library so their kids can file homework. In 2017, not being online hurts your education, your job prospects, your civic engagement.

Microsoft plans to use a cheaper technology — something called TV white spaces, which is on the wireless spectrum — to transmit broadband data. The company estimates it costs 80 percent less than building expensive wired infrastructure, and using a mix of technologies to close the rural broadband gap would cost roughly $10 billion.

Microsoft is asking the Federal Communications Commission to continue ensuring the spectrum needed for this approach, and to collect and publicly disclose data on rural broadband coverage, to guide policymakers and companies.

Under Trump, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is in a high-profile fight with the tech sector over net neutrality and the open Internet. Smith says he's talked with members of the FCC about the rural initiative and, "while one should always hesitate to be optimistic about anything in our nation's capital these days, I do think that there is a cause for optimism around this."

Seth McKee, associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, has written about the concerns of rural Americans. He calls the move by Microsoft extremely savvy. "Trump on the campaign trail used rhetoric to speak and resonate with those voters, in these sort of left-behind economies as we talk about them. But has there been anything beyond rhetoric since he's gotten into office? Not that I'm aware of," McKee says.

He says this big company is putting its money where Trump's mouth is, which could curry political favor — maybe even a positive tweet — from the president. And it's a proactive step by Microsoft in setting the agenda in Washington.

"They would be the first mover," McKee says. "If they were the first ones to really go in this area and actually show some willingness to put some skin in the game, that could go a long ways in terms of politicians taking notice and further bankrolling this sort of thing."

McKee says infrastructure — including digital infrastructure — is on the very short shortlist of policy that could get bipartisan support.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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