By Sara Powers

(AP) – Microsoft is expanding a program designed to improve high-speed internet access in Detroit and seven other U.S. cities.

The technology giant said Wednesday that its Airband Initiative is working to provide affordable broadband, devices, and other resources in Black and Latino communities.

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Atlanta, New York, Memphis, Tennessee, Cleveland, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, also are included in the efforts by the Redmond, Washington-based company and its partners.

About 120 million people in the U.S. do not use the internet at broadband speeds, and more than a third of the nation’s residents don’t have access to broadband, according to Vickie Robinson, general manager of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative.

In many Black and Hispanic communities, “broadband infrastructure largely exists but the connection and devices to utilize it are unaffordable,” Robinson said.

Separate from Microsoft’s announcement, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a directive Wednesday to establish a High-Speed Internet Office that will be responsible for developing the state’s high-speed internet strategy and coordinate funding and implementation.

“COVID-19 has only confirmed how the lack of high-speed internet access can cause too many Michiganders to struggle in their ability to engage in online learning, to use telemedicine to seek needed healthcare, to search for a new job or to take advantage of all the online resources,” Whitmer said.

Schools across Michigan shut down in March 2020 as part of the state’s stay-at-home order. Many suburban districts quickly moved to teach online. Public schools in Detroit lagged because nine out of 10 students didn’t have access to tablets, computers, or the internet.

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Last spring, a foundation, and other groups contributed $23 million to provide about 51,000 K-12 students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District with computer tablets and high-speed internet to help transition from classroom to virtual learning.

About 34% of Black adults in the U.S. don’t have broadband at home, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The Washington-based public policy nonprofit works to create ideas that improve the socioeconomic status and civic engagement of African Americans.

The center also said in its report published last August that just over 30% of Black households with one or more children 17 and younger lack high-speed internet with cost being the primary reason.

Detroit is about 80% Black and has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

“There is a profound lack of awareness about the digital divide,” said Joshua Edmonds, director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit. “If we look at consumer behavior in the late ’90s, there was never a concentrated effort to include everyone. It was only for people who could afford it. Now, look at poverty rates. Rural and urban Black and brown people are least likely to have high-speed internet.”

Microsoft is working in Detroit with internet service provider Starry Inc. to make its affordable and competitive broadband network coverage accessible across the city, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

Microsoft’s Airband Initiative was launched in 2017 to help close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet connectivity to rural and other unconnected communities across the globe.

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