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Microsoft is announcing a new effort to connect more people to the Internet - not people far away in the so-called emerging markets, where other American tech giants have built Internet balloons and drones. Instead, Microsoft is focusing right here at home, on rural America. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The largest companies in the U.S. by market value are the big Internet companies. But these companies have a bad rap when it comes to American workers. Tech is known for sending jobs overseas and now for racing to automate, that is, kill jobs still here. That said, something is changing in the zeitgeist of the tech industry.
BRAD SMITH: We perhaps looked less than we should have at what was happening in rural America.
SHAHANI: Brad Smith is president of Microsoft.
SMITH: We went overseas. And that's a good thing. We should be around the world. But we should also be focused on our own backyards...
SHAHANI: ...Or farmlands - 23.4 million Americans in rural America are cut off from broadband Internet. Today, Smith is announcing that his company is committed to getting nearly 10 percent of them online over the next five years and that Microsoft is going to push phone companies and regulators to help get the whole 23.4 million connected. This population is not an important customer base compared with the rest of Microsoft's business. But rural America is important politically, as Smith himself admits.
SMITH: This announcement is connected to the events of the last year. I think last year's election was a wake-up call...
SHAHANI: ...For the many people who felt left behind economically and who said it by voting for President Trump.
SMITH: This is a step to serve them better.
SHAHANI: In some rural areas, parents have to drive their kids to the parking lot of the local library so their kids can file homework. In 2017, not being online hurts your education, your job prospects, civic engagement. Microsoft plans to use a cheaper technology, something called TV White Spaces, which is on the wireless spectrum, to transmit broadband data. The company estimates it costs 80 percent less than building expensive, wired infrastructure.
And while the Federal Communications Commission under President Trump is in a high-profile fight with the tech sector over net neutrality and the open Internet, Smith says he's talked with members of the FCC about rural America. And...
SMITH: While one should always hesitate to be optimistic about anything in our nation's capital these days, I do think that there is a cause for optimism around this.
SETH MCKEE: I think it's extremely savvy. I really do.
SHAHANI: Seth McKee, associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, has written about the concerns of rural Americans.
MCKEE: Trump on the campaign trail used rhetoric to speak and resonate with those voters and these sort of left-behind economies, as we talk about them. But has there been anything beyond rhetoric since he's gotten into office? Not that I'm aware of.
SHAHANI: McKee says this big company is putting their money where Trump's mouth is, which could curry political favor, maybe even a positive tweet from the president. And it's a proactive step by Microsoft in setting the agenda in Washington.
MCKEE: I mean, they would be the first mover. If they were the first ones to really go in this area and actually show some willingness to put some skin in the game, that could go a long ways in terms of politicians taking notice and further bankrolling this sort of thing.
SHAHANI: McKee says infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, is on the very short, short list of policy that could get bipartisan support. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.
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