Microsoft expands Airband Initiative to address the digital divide for racial minorities

A womens left hand holding a Wi-Fi sign with a green landscape in the background

In 2017, Microsoft announced the Rural Airband Initiative as a means to address the digital broadband gap in the U.S., particularly with regards to the disparity between high-speed internet availability in metropolitan vs. rural areas. Over the past few years, the tech giant has made a number of advancements in this regard.

Today, in yet another step towards closing the digital gap, Microsoft has announced that eight more U.S. cities will now be included in the scope of its Airband program, with particular focus on serving Black, African American, Latinx, and Hispanic communities. The cities that have been added as part of this effort include Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, El Paso, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, and New York City.

Two maps side by side with the first one showing FCC&039s figures for underserved broadband communit
Image via Microsoft

As part of this move, the ongoing work includes:

  • Partnering with Starry, Inc. in Los Angeles to provide affordable broadband in four Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles communities, which has already connected more than 1,000 households.
  • Working with PCs for People in Cleveland to provide 1,000 households affordable, high-speed internet and affordable devices. Rather than using traditional fiber to connect individual homes, PCs for People is mounting antennas on buildings at University Hospitals and the East Cleveland City Schools, which will broadcast broadband signals to individual homes.
  • Providing free and low-cost refurbished devices to racial and ethnic minorities in all eight cities by working with partners like PCs for People, human-I-T, and PlanITROI.
  • Working with nonprofit EveryoneOn to help people find low-cost broadband services and then guide them through the signup process, find affordable computers, and begin digital literacy training – and once someone signs up through EveryoneOn, they will be offered three months of free broadband service.

Microsoft has also noted that on top of racial and ethnic minorities being at a disadvantage when it comes to digital equity, there is also a huge "device gap". This is illustrated through Pew Research's findings that around 25% of Hispanic and/or Latinx adults, and 17% of Black and African American people who are dependent on smartphones not being able to access the internet.

With last year's annual Airband Initiative update, Microsoft noted a huge inconsistency among its findings versus the FCC's, with the former claiming ~157 million U.S. people do not have high-speed internet access, while the latter touted a much smaller ~21 million figure. Interestingly, this disparity still exists, with Microsoft's latest reports showcasing a 120.3 million figure, versus the FCC's 14.5 million count. As per the Redmond firm, this issue is still persistent due to faulty, inaccurate maps, though it hopes that the mapping process will be updated soon.

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