A Sept. 16 guest opinion, titled “Lack of internet access is holding rural communities back. Students, too,” recently appeared in newspapers.
First, I have total respect for the writer who submitted the op-ed. Second, I am 100% in agreement with the guest writer’s underlying interest in facilitating access to advanced broadband connectivity to all Montanans. Broadband is a critical economic tool in rural and urban areas alike.
The letter was actually written by Microsoft as part of a massive lobbying campaign. The software giant has dedicated considerable internal resources and has engaged lobbyists across the nation to support its “grassroots” operation, which ghost-writes opinion pieces like the one that showed up in the Missoulian and other papers. The corporation even created a shell organization called Connect Americans Now through which to erase its fingerprints.
The trouble with this letter is that it’s filled with misinformation. In an effort to “sell” a questionable solution for broadband connectivity, the corporation paints a picture that is misleading, at best. At worst it paints a disparaging picture of broadband in Montana, which negatively affects economic development.
For example, the headline asserts that rural communities lack internet access. Students too! Wrong. The rural broadband providers of Montana represented by the Montana Telecommunications Association (MTA) serve over 70% of Montana’s geography with over 25,000 miles of fiber optic facilities and invest nearly $100 million every year in expanding broadband infrastructure throughout the state. Nearly 100% of the schools served by these providers have fiber to the school. The few schools without a direct fiber connection have access to broadband far in excess of any broadband standard recommended by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
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Are there some rural communities that lack sufficient access to broadband? Yes, in communities not served by MTA members. We need to accurately identify, and close, that gap. Despite repeated admonitions to get their story straight, Microsoft continues its disinformation campaign.
Microsoft makes the preposterous allegation that “720,000 Montanans are not able to access the Internet at broadband speeds.” In other words, more than 70% of Montanans lack adequate broadband connectivity. Really? This proposition is ridiculous on the face of it. Microsoft “measures” connectivity by capturing the speed with which consumers download Microsoft products. If it measures download speeds less than 25 megabits (mbps) it counts those connections as “access to the Internet at (less than) broadband speeds.” However, the download speed a consumer subscribes to has little to do with what is available to the consumer. Thus, a consumer might have access to Internet speeds at 25 mbps or greater, but chooses to subscribe to a “lower tier” service at 10 mbps. Microsoft knows this, but opts to overlook this fact in order to sell its “solution.”
The solution in this case is a fixed wireless technology that has limited capability. Ironically, the technology cannot deliver “internet at broadband speeds.” The range of its wireless signal is limited. Equipment has yet to be developed that meets potential provider standards. The signal is unlicensed; it can interfere with other users of the same spectrum, like medical devices. And — the reason for its lobbying campaign — the FCC has not made available all the spectrum that Microsoft wants to deploy its fixed wireless product.
The broadband provider members of MTA already use an “all-of-the-above” approach to deploying broadband connectivity to their consumers. They’ve built a fiber-based infrastructure and use fixed wireless solutions where appropriate. Can Microsoft’s Airband product help? Maybe. We’ve already kicked the tires and are not impressed.
It would help if Microsoft tried a little more honesty.