How high-speed internet is bringing people ‘out of the dark ages’ to reshape work and life in rural America
As Beth Carlson prepared to take her son to a hospital eight hours away for surgery on a benign brain tumor last winter, one major worry aside from the procedure weighed on her mind.
How would the family stay in touch with Xander, 13, while he was away for weeks of treatment afterward? They’d tried video chats during a previous hospital stay, but the internet connection on the farm where they live was too slow. They could talk by phone, but it wasn’t the same as being able to see her boy’s face and look for the signs a mother knows to tell if he was OK. Xander’s two sisters, one older and one younger, were also worried about him.
“That was our biggest concern — how do you stay connected with him?” says Carlson, who lives in Orion, Illinois, a town of about 1,800 people. “It was hard. He was doing very, very well and stayed in great spirits, which made it easier, but it was very hard not to be able to just hug on him and be there with him.”
Carlson needed a solution and found it, ironically, on a social media thread where other Orion residents were posting about their connectivity issues. Someone mentioned Network Business Systems Inc., a small internet provider in the area and a partner in Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, a five-year commitment to bring broadband access to 3 million people in unserved rural communities nationwide by July 2022. Carlson contacted the company, which set up an internet tower for the family on a grain tower at a nearby farm.
As Xander recovered from brain surgery at St. Jude Children’s Research Center in Memphis and later, as he underwent six weeks of radiation, the family was able to visit with him every day via video chat when they couldn’t be there. Xander missed his dog, an Australian shepherd named Arrow, so his sisters would prop one of their phones up near him so Xander could see and talk to him.
The faster connection provided other benefits too — Xander’s sisters, Noelle and Svea, no longer had to go to the library to do homework during frequent internet outages, and for the first time in their lives, the family could stream movies at home.
“All of a sudden the kids were like, ‘We have a real life. We can do chats with our brother, and we can watch Netflix,’” Carlson says. “We finally came out of the dark ages and can do what everybody else can do.”
Access to high-speed internet is fundamental in an increasingly digital and connected world, and something many living in urban areas take for granted. But according to the Federal Communications Commission, around 21.3 million people in the U.S., more than 16.8 million of them living in rural communities, don’t have access to broadband. Microsoft’s data shows the numbers are much higher.
“Without a proper broadband connection, rural communities can’t start or run a modern business, access telemedicine, take an online class, digitally transform their farm, or research a school project online,” Microsoft President Brad Smith says. “As a nation, we can’t afford to turn our backs on these communities as we head into the future.”
The Airband Initiative is designed to help close the gap through partnerships with internet providers and manufacturers around the country. In Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan, partner Astrea is building out its existing wireless internet system to provide high-speed connectivity to tens of thousands of new customers. In California, Cal.net is working on projects to provide broadband at home for students of a rural college and to farmers in the Central Valley so they can collect crop and weather data.
At Tri-S Farms, Inc., in Eastville, Virginia, Steve Sturgis relies on high-speed internet throughout the workday — to monitor fluctuations in grain prices, research where he can get supplies at the lowest cost, check out farming equipment and get updates on diseases and other potential threats to his crops.
“When I was growing up, you kind of relied on what you saw in the fields, and that was it,” says Sturgis, a fourth-generation farmer and president of Tri-S.
“Now you’ve got information coming to you. That’s a huge thing for us. We’re in a game of a few dollars per acre of making a profit if we can. The biggest bang for our buck is information.”
Sturgis used to get by with a mobile wireless hotspot connection, which he says was “the pits — half the time it didn’t work.” Almost four years ago, he switched to Airband partner Declaration Networks Group and says the broadband connection the company provides has made his work more convenient and opened up new possibilities.
A high-speed connection means Sturgis can easily send information to his accountant and file required crop reports with the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than driving 45 miles to their respective offices. At night, he’ll get on his laptop to watch YouTube videos of automated farming techniques and look at new equipment he’d like to buy.
Sturgis says there are many ways high-speed internet can benefit farmers, from connecting equipment remotely to technicians for repairs to allowing farmers to view planting and irrigation operations on mobile apps.
“Agriculture is probably the biggest beneficiary of broadband, or can be,” Sturgis says. “With broadband, information is the big advantage.”
Lee Williams moved with his family from the Chicago suburbs six years ago to take a position as minister of Bethel Baptist Church in Port Byron, Illinois. He was told the internet in Port Byron might not be as good as what he was used to, but he figured that just meant the connection might be a little slow.
Williams, who’s legally deaf, wears a microphone condenser around his neck that amplifies sound from his cell phone and transmits it to his Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids. He wears a haptic smart watch because he can’t hear phones ring. He also relies on technology in his job working from home as a data scientist for a national brokerage firm — for webinars, sending large files back and forth and regularly updating drivers, among other functions.
Williams’ hearing loss is such, he says, that he could go to a rock concert so loud people have their hands over their ears and not be able to tell you what song is playing.
“Without technology, I can’t interact with my world,” he says. “I’m completely isolated.”
When the family arrived in Port Byron, first-generation DSL internet was the only option. It took six hours one day for Williams to download an audiobook. He switched to satellite internet, but it was metered and Williams quickly blew past his monthly internet budget. He tried a cell phone hotspot, but the bandwidth was unreliable and led to inconsistent data flows and lost information.
Williams worried the family might have to move. In desperation, he turned to his congregation for suggestions and someone mentioned Network Business Systems. The company set up a wireless tower on a grain elevator at a farm about a mile from the church, providing the parsonage with broadband. A second connection was recently added to the church building, where Williams is planning to set up a computer center where children without internet at home can do homework and unemployed people can apply for jobs online. He also plans to start streaming church services for congregants who are sick or can’t make it to church on snowy days.
“It’s not just internet for Facebook’s sake. It’s internet for community,” Williams says. “It’s keeping people from feeling forgotten and isolated.”
Microsoft’s Airband Initiative grew out of technology developed by Microsoft Research more than a decade ago to use TV white spaces, the unused broadcasting frequencies between television channels, to create wireless broadband connections. The company launched an initial pilot in 2013, working with several partners to build a solar-powered broadband network that provided connectivity to local schools, health care clinics and businesses in Nanyuki, Kenya.
The effort was followed by projects in five other countries across Africa, to life-altering results. Women got maternal care for the first time through telemedicine. Entrepreneurs accessed information online that enabled them to start businesses. At one high school in Kenya, student scores went up for every subject on the national exam. The successes led Microsoft to start looking closer to home.
“It’s not just internet for Facebook’s sake. It’s internet for community. It’s keeping people from feeling forgotten and isolated.”
“We started to have a conversation about how it’s great that we’re doing this in emerging markets, but what about the U.S.?” says Paul Garnett, senior director of the Airband Initiative. “We wanted to take the learnings we had developed in those emerging markets and bring them back to the U.S.”
Airband officially launched in the U.S. in July 2017 with a goal of making broadband available to 2 million people in unserved rural communities around the U.S. by 2022. After a successful first year, Microsoft increased the goal to 3 million people.
Under the initiative, Microsoft is providing funding to telecommunications companies for broadband infrastructure projects and expertise about technological solutions, working with device manufacturers to develop better and more affordable technologies, and investing in digital skills training. There are now more than 90 Airband projects around the world, including partnerships with 12 internet service providers in 24 U.S. states.
“We’re on a good track to achieving our goals,” Garnett says, “and we want to do more.”
Situated in the northeastern corner of Washington state, Ferry County is a mountainous, forested, ruggedly beautiful region. Bordered by Canada to the north and the Columbia River on the east, it’s the state’s fourth most sparsely populated county; the largest town, Republic, founded by gold prospectors in the late 19th century, has fewer than 1,000 residents.
The county’s gold mines and all but one sawmill are now closed, and the region has struggled in recent years to attract people and businesses. The lack of broadband is a major reason, says Trevor Lane, an assistant professor and the director of community and economic development for Washington State University’s extension office in Republic.
“If you’re not in town, you don’t have any kind of reliable broadband,” he says. “It’s impeding our ability to attract businesses. I know of three businesses that had to go elsewhere because we don’t have sufficient broadband.”
The need for broadband was starkly underscored when a series of wildfires in 2015 raged across Ferry County and neighboring Okanogan County, where three firefighters were killed. At one point, a fire was burning on the Colville Indian Reservation south of Republic, and another fire on Sherman Pass, less than 20 miles away, drew within a couple of miles of town. Residents prepared to evacuate.
As the fires inched closer, Nathan Davis, the county commissioner for Republic, moved computing servers from the town’s courthouse to neighboring Stevens County and worried about how to get residents out safely. Then the town’s power went out. Generators that should have kicked in didn’t, he says, and the area’s 911 center was unable to operate.
“All of a sudden, we had a county surrounded by fire that could not communicate,” Davis says.
With no broadband outside of town, maps and other fire data had to be driven to firefighting camps up to three hours away. Lane and others scrambled to figure out where the information needed to go and how to get it there. The lack of broadband, Davis says, extended the time it took to get the fires under control and restore power, which was out for 18 hours.
“Because there was no power, there was no communication. I found that totally unacceptable,” he says. “I would have a hard time looking at the landowner who just lost his home because we couldn’t communicate, we couldn’t deal with the issue and they couldn’t save their home.”
The fires prompted Davis to develop a mobile unit designed to use TV white spaces technology and provide power and broadband during emergency situations. The unit — a large, white aluminum box that can be quickly mounted on a vehicle — has a battery bank, power inverters and a generator. Davis is testing technologies on the unit and envisions it being deployed for a range of scenarios.
If a road was washed out, for example, the unit could be used to livestream drone footage to authorities to provide a picture of the situation on the ground. It could relay VHF radio signals for emergency crews or serve as a mobile weather station to provide localized data during fires.
Microsoft is providing funding to further develop the unit and partnering with Declaration Networks Group to deploy a wireless internet network in Ferry and Stevens counties. The network is so far providing high-speed internet to Columbia Cedar mill, the region’s biggest employer. The company had struggled with poor connectivity that led to ongoing communications problems between its two sites and slow order processing times.
“Everything became very slow for processing orders, for changing the planer runs, things of that nature,” says Brad Welsh, the company’s IT specialist. “Trying to open an application to get anything done, things would just spin and it took forever.”
Declaration Networks Group started providing the company with broadband internet last summer and Welsh says the faster connection has made a dramatic difference. The company can now use technology like Microsoft Teams, he says, and access YouTube and video conferencing to train workers. The improved connectivity has allowed the company to back up its data in the cloud, and Welsh can more easily download software upgrades.
“Before, it would take days to do a gigabyte download,” he says. “Now I can get something done within a couple of hours, which is excellent.”
Lane sees the support from Microsoft, along with other efforts to expand infrastructure for broadband in the region, as bringing new potential to Ferry County.
“Broadband is where we’re going to win if we’re going to get to the next level,” he says.
Lead image: The Carlson family shares some time together at their home in Orion, Illinois. From left, Xander, Noelle, Beth, Josh and Svea. (Photo by Greg Boll)
This story was originally published on Jan. 8, 2020.