Bringing affordable, reliable broadband Internet access to those who lack it has become a strategic focal point for high-powered telecoms and high-tech corporations and executives – whether it be in the rural US or isolated towns and villages around the world. Multinational corporate giants, such as Microsoft, are investing in promising, developing-world solar energy start-ups and entrepreneurs in order to lay the foundations for both universal clean energy and broadband access.

Launched in July 2017, the Microsoft Airband Initiative has been joining forces with local Internet service providers (ISPs) with the aim of delivering broadband access to 2 million rural Americans by 2022. Several small-scale projects are under way, and Microsoft Airband Initiative is working with several ISPs to realize larger scale deployments, according to the program’s Senior Director Paul Garnett.

Cost Comparison to Connect 23.4 Million People in Rural America
Cost Comparison to Connect 23.4 Million People in Rural America. | Credit: Microsoft. | Data sources: The Boston Consulting Group, 2017; FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report.

Microsoft Airband Initiative is working to close the digital divide overseas, as well. In August, program managers awarded grants to three African start-ups that are bringing both solar energy and broadband access to off-grid households and communities. The winners of the third annual Microsoft Airband Grant Fund – Nigeria’s ColdHub, Rwanda’s MeshPower, and Kenya’s Agsol – brings the total number of Microsoft Airband grant partners in Africa to 19.

“Today, Internet access is as essential as electricity. It empowers entrepreneurs to start and grow small businesses, farmers to implement precision agriculture, doctors to improve community health, and students to do better in school,” Microsoft Airband Initiative’s program managers state. “But almost half the world’s population is still not online. Often because they live in under-served areas, and therefore miss out on opportunities to take advantage of and become part of the digital economy. As a global technology company, we believe we have a responsibility and a great opportunity to help close this gap.”

The Microsoft Airband Initiative

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that some 3.5 billion people worldwide lack Internet access. The World Bank estimates that some 1.3 billion – 600 million in Africa – lack access to electricity, Garnett highlighted in an interview.

Declining costs, improved performance and fast-growing markets and industry are fueling growth of innovative distributed solar energy solutions and start-ups worldwide. The growth of mobile pay-go solar start-ups, and more recently solar microgrid developers, in Sub-Saharan Africa offers a case in point. Support from national and multilateral government policy initiatives, programs and public-private partnerships are creating an institutional framework for sustainable development and growth.

“Without connectivity or electricity, communities are unable to take advantage of the benefits of the Internet, which is critical for education, healthcare, farming and participation in the 21st century economy,” Garnett told Solar Magazine.

The Microsoft Airband Grant Fund provides access to financing, technology, mentoring, networking opportunities and other resources that help start-up partners scale and expand deployment and use of their technologies, services and business models, Garnett explained.

“Our initiative is unique in its focus on increased clean energy access and connectivity to bridge the digital divide and create a more sustainable future for all,” Garnett said. “As part of this effort, we are partnering with companies who understand the needs of their communities and are focused on sparking local solutions. This is key to our goal. Everything we do is through and with local partners and entrepreneurs. Microsoft works behind the scenes to accelerate the work of our partners via our technology, ecosystem and programs like Airband.”

Early-stage funding for clean energy and Internet access

A total of eight early-stage companies received Microsoft Airband Grant Fund awards this year, the third, consecutive year grants were awarded. The start-ups are bringing affordable, reliable, solar-energy services and Internet access to off-grid and under-served communities in Africa, Asia and the US. Three of this year’s grant recipients hail from Africa.

  • Agsol, Kenya

Agsol manufactures solar powered agro-processing machines for off-grid farming communities. In addition to providing the electrical energy for equipment that processes staple crops such as maize flour, milled rice, and grated cassava, excess power is used for lighting, phone chargers and small appliances.

Agsol Solar Farming Equipment Machinery
Image: courtesy of CIO EAST AFRICA
  • ColdHubs, Nigeria

ColdHubs is transforming their refrigerated crop storage rooms in Owerri, Nigeria into Wi-Fi hot spots using TV White Spaces (TVWS) technology.

More fundamentally, the company aims to empower smallholder farmers by giving them the opportunity improve their livelihoods.

Globally, smallholder farmers grow most of the fruits, vegetables and other crops consumed by people and livestock. It’s estimated that some 470 million smallholder farmers lost 25 percent of the value of their crops annually as a result of food spoilage, however. ColdHubs’ solar-powered crop storage facilities help reduce food spoilage. Farmers who use ColdHubs can extend the freshness of their fruits and vegetables from two to about 21 days and reduce post-harvest loss by 80 percent, Microsoft Airband highlights.

Microsoft Airband ColdHubs Cold Rooms Installation
Image: courtesy of CIO EAST AFRICA

ColdHubs also is helping close the digital divide by turning its cold-storage facilities into Wi-Fi ‘Farm Connect Centers.’ Farmers are able to access the Internet and gain access to agricultural training, resources to improve crop yields and marketing and digital skills training.

  • MeshPower, Rwanda

Developer of a solar-powered, 48-volt, DC microgrid platform, Kigali, Rwanda-based MeshPower provides energy to off-grid regions. Built-in Internet connectivity enables MeshPower to deploy, monitor and manage the microgrids efficiently at a fraction of the cost of traditional energy access solutions, according to Microsoft Airband Initiative.

Microsoft Airband - Rwanda Trip - MeshPower
Image: courtesy of CIO EAST AFRICA

Microsoft Airband Grant Fund award recipients

All told, 30 companies in more than 20 countries have been awarded Microsoft Airband grants. Previous year’s grant recipients include Kenya’s SunCulture, Uganda’s New Sun Road, Nepal’s PicoSoft and Indonesia’s Electric Vine.

Other recipients in Africa include Ghana’s Spectra Wireless, Democratic Republic of Congo’s VisionNet, Ghana’s Spectra Wireless, Kenya’s Mawingu, Malawi’s C3, Namibia’s My Digital Bridge and South Africa’s iSizwe. Microsoft also has partnered with Kenya’s M-KOPA, a market-leading solar energy company spun off from mobile payments service provider Safaricom’s M-PESA, that’s using cloud services, smart metering and m-payments technologies to deliver affordable, pay-as-you-go clean energy to 700,000 homes.

Bangladesh’s ME Solshare also received a Microsoft Airband grant this year. Four US start-ups did as well – New York’s CV Wireless, West Virginia’s Skylark Wireless, California’s Tribal Digital Village, and Numbers4Health, which is bringing broadband access to under-served rural communities in Texas, Maine and Compton, California. Each of the recipients will use TV white spaces and other technologies to extend “last-mile” access to the Internet.

Broadband is Delivered to Rural Areas Using TV White Spaces Antenna
Broadband is delivered to rural areas using TV white spaces antenna. | Image: courtesy of Microsoft

“This year’s grant recipients will help bring Internet and energy access to people around the world so that they can take advantage of today’s digital economy,” Garnett said. “We are eager to work with the companies over the next year to refine and expand their reach of solutions.”

Microsoft Airband and program partners need to overcome numerous and varied challenges in order to realize their aims. One is working to ensure effective regulatory support is in place, Garnett explained. “For example, in the US, we encourage the FCC to ensure that a sufficient amount of spectrum below 700 MHz is available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV white space available in smaller markets and rural areas.”

A corporate commitment to empower people

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The Airband Initiative is an extension of Microsoft’s broader based commitment “to empower people with the tools and technology to build a more sustainable future,” Garnett told Solar Magazine. “The use of clean energy is part of that commitment and through the Airband Grant Fund we are investing in energy start-ups around the world – including in Africa – who will not only bring off-the-grid solutions, but also help provide the essential power source for Internet access.”

Broad-based, equitable access to environmentally friendly, sustainable power technology and systems is critical to expanding broadband access, as well as creating healthy, sustainable communities, worldwide, Garnett highlighted. “It also helps from a productivity standpoint. With clean power, household disposable incomes no longer go to kerosene, batteries, etc. and can be used for more productive purposes. Ultimately, this can help with productivity in the broader community – for example, vendors can stay open after dusk and students can study during the evenings.”

“We are investing in clean energy solutions in Africa and globally, to help bring more renewable sources to the grid and Internet access to rural communities so that they can participate in today’s 21st century economy. Together, clean energy and internet access can transform communities, helping to enable healthcare, farming, education and small business solutions and a greener future for all.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

Bridging the digital divide is a focal point for the ITU, as well. Earlier this month, ITU members said they intend to deliver Internet access to the 2 billion of the 5 billion mobile network subscribers worldwide who lack it.

Addressing attendees at ITU Telecoms World 2018, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said “Africa is at the dawn of a digital revolution that will reshape the way Africans work, the way they live and the way they relate to each other…”

“Technological change is proceeding at a pace far greater than anything humanity has experienced before. It is through forums like this that we are able not only to anticipate technological change, but also to harness it for the advancement of humanity. It is through bodies like the ITU that we craft a digital agenda for inclusivity, sustainability and development. We have the means and the responsibility to direct the evolution of information and communications technology (ICT) towards the achievement of a better life for all the peoples of the world.” comment

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