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Editorial: Rural America gets Microsoft's attention

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Let’s give credit where credit is due: President Trump is responsible for bringing broadband Internet to two counties in Southside Virginia. Indirectly, anyway.

He might also be responsible, again, indirectly, for extending broadband to lots of other places in rural America.

At the very least, he’s at least responsible for one of the world’s tech giants focusing on the “digital divide” that has left many rural areas still on dial-up.

That’s the political takeaway from Microsoft’s much-heralded proposal last week that we use unused television frequencies to deliver broadband to rural areas.

Microsoft has been experimenting with this so-called “white space” technology for 14 years now, and in the past four years has run pilot programs in Africa and the Philippines that have connected about 185,000 people to high-speed Internet.

Now, parts of Southside Virginia will get upgraded to the same level of technology that Botswana has, which just goes to show how far behind some rural areas in the United States are.

This apparently wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been such a stark electoral divide in last year’s presidential election, with rural counties delivering unprecedented margins to Trump. “In all honesty, the election did provide a wake-up call for all of us in the country to think about the role of rural counties,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Vast stretches of the country are stranded outside an economy that increasingly relies on high-speed data transmissions over broadband connections. For a community to not have broadband is the economic equivalent of not having electricity, or telephone service.

It’s ironic that it took Trump’s election to call attention to this gap. After all, Trump’s economic policies have been decidedly backward-looking rather than forward-looking — he talks a lot more about “bringing back” industries that will never come back (such as coal) than he does about extending the new economy to his rural constituency. History, though, is full of ironies.

The bottom line is what matters and the bottom line is that Trump’s election led to Microsoft’s potentially revolutionary proposal for rural America.

Let’s also be clear what this really is: The opening move in a political battle. That doesn’t make Microsoft’s proposal any less important, or sincere. However, Microsoft’s much-ballyhooed announcement in Washington was really a brilliant public relations move to get the attention of federal policy-makers.

Microsoft isn’t offering to connect every house in the country itself. Instead, the software company is providing the technology and an unspecified amount of funding to telecom companies in 12 states — including Virginia. That Virginia project is in conjunction with Mid-Atlantic Broadband, a non-profit telecommunications provider based in South Boston.

(While we’re passing out credit, let’s pass out some more: It was two Southside legislators, Democrat Whitt Clement of Danville and Republican Charles Hawkins of Chatham, who in the late ’90s pushed for using the state’s settlement against tobacco companies to fund what we know today as the tobacco commission, responsible for funding economic development projects in former tobacco-growing regions. It was Gov. Jim Gilmore who accepted the deal and Gov. Mark Warner who then pushed the tobacco commission to invest in broadband projects, which led to the creation of Mid-Atlantic Broadband. And it was President Obama’s stimulus package that provided the funding to extend the Mid-Atlantic network all the way to Blacksburg. The new Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority? It connects to that line, so users need to thank Clement, Hawkins, Gilmore, Warner and Obama.)

In any case, Microsoft’s direct role in Virginia will be limited to Charlotte and Halifax counties. Microsoft hasn’t said how much it’ll spend there, but it’s already provided $250,000 to Mid-Atlantic for a pilot program. In return, Microsoft will share some of the future revenues, which it intends to use to extend service elsewhere.

That’s good for Charlotte and Halifax counties. It’s also potentially good for Microsoft, although a company that has a net income of $5.7 billion in the first quarter of this year alone probably isn’t going to get much richer off some rural counties here or there.

Microsoft deserves credit for whatever it can do to extend broadband to rural areas. This seems as close to altruism as you’re going to find in the corporate world these days. It’s also really a demonstration project.

Here’s the policy question behind all this: Microsoft is asking federal regulators to reserve unused “white space” television bandwidth nationwide for broadband. Television broadcasters aren’t happy about this. They see some unfairness here. “It’s the height of arrogance for Microsoft — a $540 billion company — to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction,” said a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

To be fair, Microsoft says it’s not interested in getting into the broadband business. It’s offered up its 39 white-space patents to other companies who want to do that. That generosity doesn’t move broadcasters. They worry that the devices necessary to make white-space technology work will interfere with neighboring channels. It’s all very technical, and very complicated. And, ultimately, very political.

The Trump administration is putting together its proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan. There are some — including Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem — who have urged Trump to include funding for rural broadband in that package. The problem with rural broadband is that it’s expensive to lay fiber to everybody’s house, although somehow we manage to run telephone lines and electric lines. Microsoft is showing that there may be a different and more cost-effective way to do that, even if by cost-effective we mean $10 billion, which is what some estimate it would cost to make use of white-space technology nationwide.

Is this the right answer? No clue. However, Microsoft has helped focus national attention on how large parts of rural America have Third World infrastructure — and, more importantly, offer a potential solution. Put another way, Microsoft has just handed Trump an opportunity to deliver “bigly” for his rural supporters. Let’s see if he takes advantage of it.

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