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Rural broadband in America

A map of broadband access by county in America.

One of the largest technology companies in the world, Microsoft, has announced a plan to provide wireless broadband internet service to 50,000 people on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Microsoft says it will accomplish this using new tower-based transmitting technology, unused television frequencies and satellites — but local telecommunications providers aren't buying in just yet.

Called the Microsoft Airband Initiative, the program aims to provide affordable wireless internet using a frequency called “TV white spaces,” the unused frequencies between digital television channels. Microsoft will partner with Native Network, an organization that specializes in bringing internet to rural Indian Country.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, about 35 percent of Americans living on tribal lands and 40 percent of rural Montanans lack broadband access. In the modern economy, a lack of high-speed internet access is often seen as a barrier to education and economic growth.

In a lengthy paper announcing the initiative, Microsoft said the technology can reduce the initial capital and operating costs of providing broadband by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, which require expensive digging. Microsoft also says its system is less expensive than current LTE (cellphone-based) internet, which is designed for densely populated areas.

By using the TV white spaces frequencies, Microsoft says it can get wireless internet signals to travel long distances in rural areas relatively cheaply. Those frequencies travel through terrain, foliage and buildings better than other frequencies.

“Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century and is critical for farmers, small business owners, health care practitioners, educators and students to thrive in today’s digital economy,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith in a statement. “The partnership with Native Network will help close the digital divide in rural Montana and Washington, bringing access to approximately 73,500 people within and around the tribal communities.”

Carl Patterson, the chief marketing officer of Native Network, said Microsoft’s ambition is to get networks up and running so they can then market products like Office 365 and the Azure platform. But, he said, the goal of Native Network is to possibly have the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (which inhabit the Flathead Reservation) to become the internet service provider.

“We are in talks with CSKT,” he said. “We’ll be going through criteria and we did a feasibility study for them. As far as pricing, that’s still to be determined, but we’re working right now to get the funding and planning portion done by quarter three of 2019.”

But because the program requires relatively expensive equipment on the customer’s end, the general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association remains cautiously skeptical about the program.

Geoff Fiess said companies like Blackfoot Telecommunications in Missoula have invested millions in providing internet service to rural Montana and to Indian reservations.

“Blackfoot actually serves the southern half of the Flathead Indian Reservation and has invested $4 million in fiber cables up there,” he said. “So when Microsoft chooses to deploy their service on an area already well-served, that rankles some of our member organizations.”

Feiss said customers have to buy equipment that costs hundreds of dollars to receive the wireless signal.

“I’ve had members kick the tires on it and find it not a viable, cost-effective option,” he said. “On the good side, more power to Microsoft for offering another option that we can put in our menu of options to serve customers with broadband.”

The idea of increasing internet access on Indian reservations has the endorsement of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

"Our Indian nations and all of rural Montana should have the same expectation of wireless connectivity as those living in more urban areas,” said Bullock in a press release. “We’re looking forward to seeing this technology employed in service of some of our most remote citizens, and appreciate the hard work of Microsoft in deploying it.”

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