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Exclusive: New coalition to bring more internet to rural America

Microsoft, along with a slew of rural broadband and technology groups, is launching a new issue advocacy coalition called Connect Americans Now that aims to eliminate the digital divide in rural America. It's part of a greater push by the company and others to close the broadband gap by using TV "white spaces" spectrum — or vacant channels.that use TV frequencies that are generally cheaper than fiber optic cable. Why it matters: Expanding rural access to broadband has long been a challenge in the U.S., since internet providers worry they'll never recoup the investment they make in building those networks. Roughly 34 million Americans lack a broadband connection and the vast majority – 23.4 million – live in rural areas.

Data: Pew Research survey; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

A senior Microsoft executive says the company will provide staffing and some financial resources as needed. Microsoft will provide small investments in capital expenditure to build the broadband networks, but like any commercial environment, it will take return on investment into consideration. "Any profit we make will reinvest back in networks," he says. The coalition is focusing on these types of airwaves because they can carry communications over greater distances and can better penetrate through walls and other obstacles, like trees, than cellular. It's hoping access to broadband will help rural communities improve their quality of life in different sectors, like health care, education and agriculture. For example, farmers can sell more goods online, and patients in distant areas can receive care remotely.

As part of its campaign, the Coalition will be urging the FCC to reserve vacant channels in every U.S. market to better enable access to broadband internet. Coalition members include Microsoft, the National Rural Education Association, Health and Library Broadband Coalition, HTS Ag, the Mid-Atlantic Broadcasting Communities Corporation, the American Pain Relief Institute, and others.

Microsoft has been at the forefront of this push and has invested in a series of pilot projects designed to serve as catalysts for widespread adoption across rural market:

  • Microsoft president Brad Smith announced the company's ambitious goal of connecting all 23.4 million rural Americans to high-speed internet this summer in Washington.
  • The company started using vacant airwaves between TV stations to power broadband connections in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that were severely damaged by hurricanes last year.

"There are amazing educational resources online, but students without broadband can easily fall behind their peers," said National Rural Education Association Executive Director Allen Pratt.

The website, which features the current CAN coalition members, launches today and can be found here.