Company president Brad Smith launched the TechSpark program Thursday in Fargo, a metropolitan area of more than 200,000 people that includes a Microsoft campus with about 1,500 employees. Smith says the six communities are different by design and not all have a Microsoft presence.
Smith says TechSpark is a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment to help teach computer science to students, expand rural broadband and help create and fill jobs, among other things. The other programs will be in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
"This is really a blueprint for private-public partnerships," said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, himself a former Microsoft executive.
Microsoft announced in July it hoped to extend broadband services to rural America. The company said then it would partner with rural telecommunications providers in 12 states with a goal of getting 2 million rural Americans high-speed internet over the next five years.
Microsoft planned to use "white space" technology, tapping buffer zones separating individual television channels in airwaves that could be cheaper than existing methods such as laying fiber-optic cable. The company had originally envisioned using it in the developing world, but shifted focus to the U.S. this summer.
"We are a very diverse country," Smith said. "It's important for us to learn more about how digital technology is changing in all different parts of the country. So we are working to be more present in more places."
Smith said there are 23.4 million Americans living in rural communities who don't have broadband coverage and the TechSpark program is going to focus on bring coverage to these six regions.
"The good news in North Dakota ... is that it is in one of the strongest positions nationally in terms of the reach of broadband coverage," he said. "But it still doesn't reach everyone everywhere."
Microsoft officials say there are nearly 500,000 unfilled computing jobs in the U.S. and that number is expected to triple by the end of next year. North Dakota currently has more than 13,000 job openings, many in computer software and engineering.
"The private sector doesn't post a job unless they think they can make more money with the job filled than unfilled," Burgum said. "So when we're filling those jobs we're actually helping those companies become more profitable, which should help create more jobs. There's no chicken or the egg thing here."
Microsoft on Thursday also selected Appleton, Wisconsin as one of the six sites. The other communities will be announced later.
Smith said the success of the program will be measured first by how it provides digital skills to students and then by the job creation, economic growth and "making a difference in the lives of real people."
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