Nonprofits Join Microsoft in New Rural Broadband Coalition

Microsoft and an array of nonprofits are launching a new advocacy group focused on improving access to broadband internet in rural areas. The solution they recommend, which would rely on unused television signals, has proven controversial in the past.

Closing the rural technology divide has long been a challenge that an increasing number of nonprofits and for-profit companies have expressed interest in fixing. The new year may usher in broad support for one potential solution.

Connect Americans Now (CAN) is a new coalition that hopes to close the broadband gap. Its founding partners are Microsoft and several nonprofit organizations, including the National Rural Education Association, ACT: The App Association, the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition, HTS Ag, the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, the American Pain Relief Institute, and a number of other groups.

In a news release announcing the launch this week, CAN Executive Director Richard T. Cullen said the lack of internet access in some areas of the country threatens to leave some Americans isolated from the benefits of technology.

“All Americans—regardless of where they live—deserve access to high-speed internet,” Cullen said. “Without a broadband connection, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments, Americans in rural areas are unable to fully utilize telemedicine, farmers are denied the promise of precision agriculture, and businesses are unable to tap into the world of online commerce.”

The group, according to Axios, advocates making vacant television channels—called “white-spaces spectrum”—available for the purpose of distributing high-speed internet access.

CAN will petition the Federal Communications Commission to support this solution, which has already been used in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to bring internet access back after the territories were severely damaged by hurricanes last fall.

Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation President and CEO Tad Deriso, whose company worked with Microsoft on a pilot program related to the technology, said in the news release that it had a “transformative effect” on the rural areas in which it was made available.

“A reliable and cost-effective broadband connection will change the lives of millions of Americans who live each day without this basic necessity,” he said.

A Controversial solution

Using white-spaces spectrum for internet access is controversial. Last year, when Microsoft first discussed  idea publicly, the National Association of Broadcasters cried foul, arguing that the company should have bid on the spectrum, rather than asking to use it for free.

“Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming,” NAB Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said in a July statement.

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith argued that the plan focused on a small portion of spectrum and encouraged NAB to collaborate with the company on the issue.

“There are 23.4 million Americans that cannot do what each of us may be doing right now, and that is accessing a broadband connection, even through a wireless device,” Smith said, according to Redmond Magazine. “So, if we do nothing else, let’s resolve that this is a problem that needs to be solved and that we will work together to solve it.”

(cienpies/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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