In our modern globalized world, the use of the internet has revolutionized communication, industry and education. For most Americans today, life without internet seems unimaginable. However, it is a reality for over 23 million people who live in rural areas that lack any connection to broadband, including many communities in Wisconsin. Such disconnectedness has resulted in a restriction of economic progress in these typically poor communities.
Microsoft has offered a solution to increase access in these communities, called their Rural Broadband Initiative. However, the Federal Communications Commission and cronyist interests of big broadcasting companies are preventing market forces from expanding internet access to millions.
When it comes to lack of broadband access, rural communities are the hardest hit, with 85 percent of America's “persistent poverty counties” being in rural areas. Without internet, a rural resident has few options to access education, search job prospects, and even access basic necessities like health care. Children are especially impacted, with 5 million school-age children lacking access, leading many to loiter in parking lots or cafés to just receive a connection. The USDA Economic Research Service found the number of rural children in poverty is rising while the rest of the U.S. population has seen income and employment gains. It is these realities that make expanding broadband services ever more important.
Recognizing the severe inequality of broadband access, Microsoft has taken a lead in expanding access across rural America. On Oct. 20, Microsoft President Bradford Smith gave a talk to Women in Technology Wisconsin about the company’s Rural and Middle America Technology Initiative, a project aimed at expanding access nationwide. One way the company plans to do so is by harnessing unused TV white spaces — the unused spectrum between TV channels — to generate a sort of “Super Wi-Fi” accessible in rural areas. It's an innovative solution made through completely voluntary means.
While many may seem skeptical of the proposal, Microsoft has already used similar programs in over 20 countries with great success, connecting over 185,000 people to the internet. One of the greatest achievements was in Kenya, where increased access to broadband boosted student scores on their five-point national exam to a 3.8 from a previous 2.6. Just imagine if this program was available to American children; it very well could revolutionize education.
The program has gained widespread support from both sides of the aisle. Forty congressmen sent a letter to the FCC in July stating their support of Microsoft’s proposal to use white spaces. The greatest roadblock to this project, surprisingly, has not been politicians but the FCC and broadcasting cronies who utilize the majority of white space.
Currently, broadcasters already control over 92 percent of the channels and receive massive subsidies from the government to the tune of $1.75 billion, with possibly more coming their way. Is it any wonder that the broadcasters are fighting against a program that will use even just a few of the white spaces?
When it comes down to it, the broadcasters are more concerned about their government subsidies than allowing public resources to be used for rural Americans’ benefit. They have even gone so far as to offer misinformed arguments like Super Wi-Fi may interfere with medical devices or restrict alerts to the public during emergencies. These claims have been thoroughly debunked by The App Association, further showing how the cronies are fighting any way they can to maintain their taxpayer-funded subsidies.
If the FCC doesn’t approve the use of white spaces for Microsoft’s rural broadband access program, it will be a great disservice to progress and the millions of Americans in rural counties, including many throughout Wisconsin. Instead of letting crony broadcasters continue to use public goods for personal gains it is time the FCC allow the free market to put something meant for public use to actually be used to benefit the public.
Sam Dunkovich is a Young Voices Advocate and graduate from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, where he studied political science and communications.
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