Brad Smith, Microsoft President, writing at LinkedIn with Carol Ann Browne
We live in a time when it’s easy to talk about a divided America. On some days the divide is characterized by partisanship and a division between our political parties. On other days the news is characterized by racial or economic divides. But there’s another divide that deserves our attention: it’s the technology divide that impacts too much of the United States.
One simple but powerful way to measure access to technology today is whether people have access to broadband. And in the United States today, 23.4 million people in rural America do not. It’s not even a question of affordability. There simply is no broadband service they can buy.
Broadband is no longer just about watching YouTube videos or the latest hits on Netflix – although it’s worth remembering that as many in the nation discuss the latest episodes of Stranger Things, more than 20 million people live in communities that effectively have no access to it.
Broadband has become a necessity of life. It’s fundamental for a child’s ability to do homework after school. It’s essential for a veteran’s to access telemedicine services rather than spend four hours driving to a VA Hospital. It has become the future of farming with precision agriculture. And it’s vital for small businesses and their ability to expand their customer base and create new jobs.
As we look at the broad range of cloud services that our customers use to harness the power of Microsoft datacenters, it’s apparent that broadband has become the electricity of our age. Just as the country committed in the 20th century that every American would have access to electricity and long-distance telephones, the United States today needs to commit itself to ensuring that broadband coverage is available to everyone.
It’s apparent that broadband has become the electricity of our age.
As with electricity and telephony, this is an issue and opportunity not just for government but for companies and the private sector. That’s why we launched Microsoft’s Airband initiative in July. Its aim is to partner with telecommunications companies to bring broadband coverage to at least two million new Americans over the next five years. But its purpose is larger than that. It’s to advance new technology, spur the broader market and encourage policymakers across the country to take the additional steps needed to eliminate the rural broadband gap entirely by 2022. We believe this is an achievable, affordable, and even essential goal for the country.
But bringing innovation back to every part of the country will require more than broadband. It requires a broader range of investments in digital skills in schools, digital transformation for businesses, and digital support for non-profits. That’s why we’ve launched Microsoft’s TechSpark program, which is partnering with six communities outside the countries’ large cities to invest in and learn more about how technology can better support economic growth in these parts of the country. It provides us with the opportunity to learn from local leaders in specific regions in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Washington State.
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If Broadband is a necessity of life, government agencies at all levels should treat it as critical infrastructure, just like water, waste, power, and transportation.