New Microsoft Study Indicates that Millions of Americans Lack Access to High-Speed Internet, a Figure Significantly Higher than Existing FCC Estimates

The New York Times reports on a new study by Microsoft that found as many as 162.8 million Americans do not use the Internet at high speeds. Predominantly affecting citizens in rural communities, where Internet inaccessibility has severe economic, educational, and health implications, the study highlights the inherent issues in the Federal Communications Commission’s recording methods on Internet access and the potential need for tech companies and governments to work together to improve connectivity and opportunity in underserved communities.

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The Federal Communications Commission states that all citizens of Ferry County, a 2,200 square mile constituency in North Eastern Washington geographically made up of forests, rivers, and lakes, have access to broadband Internet. But a recent article published by the New York Times suggests that for as many as 7,500 residents, this is not the case.

Beyond the county seat, Republic, where broadband Internet is supplied by a community owned and operated cable TV company, many people are left “out in the woods” without access to high-speed service.

According to a new study by Microsoft, the residents of Ferry County are not alone. Throughout their research, Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people in the United States do not use the Internet at high speeds, while the FCC indicates that broadband is not available to as many as 24.7 million Americans. In Ferry County, Microsoft estimates the use of broadband Internet to be as low as 2%, in sharp contrast to the FCC’s claim that 100% of residents have broadband access.

The figures suggest large discrepancies in access to high-speed Internet for rural communities, an issue that has serious economic, educational, and health implications. The accuracy and relevancy of the FCC’s statistics on broadband and Internet usage are also vital for the development of future policies and allocations of federal funding for underserved communities like Ferry County.

In 2017, the FCC began a formal review into possible improvements for the accuracy of its broadband measurement system.  “Maintaining updated and accurate data about broadband deployment is critical to bridging the digital divide,” said Ajit Pai, the commission chairman, when introducing the review. “So we’re teeing up ideas for collecting more granular and standardized data.”

Experts say that the problem with the data compiled by the FCC is that it relies heavily on oversimplified surveys that project higher rates of coverage than the reality. Rather than measuring access to fast-speed Internet by individual devices or households, the FCC assumes that if one business has access to broadband, all businesses and households in the surrounding area will share the same access.

Conversely, Microsoft crunches data gathered from usage of the company’s software and services, including Microsoft Office, software updates, Bing searches and map usage, and Xbox gaming. They have vowed to share this data with the FCC and the public through their website, all while collaborating with Internet providers and hardware companies to extend broadband access to rural communities through white-space technology, fiber-optics, satellites, and high-speed mobile services.

While critics question the motives behind Microsoft’s research, as one of the world’s richest companies lobbying for generous government grants and advantages, the company’s study has identified access to high-speed Internet in rural communities as a key issue that their products and services could provide a potential solution to, an ongoing trend amongst tech companies whose influence and impact can at times outweigh that of existing governmental agencies.

Read the study here.

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