By 2018, half of the world’s population was online with some form of internet connection but the other half of the global population still has no access to electricity and internet access.
The recently-released UN State of Broadband Report states that broadband adoption has slowed, with progress especially elusive in low-income countries and rural areas across the globe. Most of the connected population relies on low speed, basic cellular services and only 14.1% of the global population has an in-home internet subscription.
To help address this situation, Microsoft launched Airband Initiative which aims to extend internet access to 40 million unserved and underserved people around the globe by July 2022. The initiative will focus on areas with significant underserved populations – initially, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa – that also have regulatory interest in solving connectivity issues.
“Extending internet access to 40 million people around the world in the span of three years is a big task – but it’s informed by our ongoing work in connectivity, experience with partners and engagement from development finance institutions,” stated Shelley McKinley, Microsoft’s Head of Technology and CSR in a recent blog post.
“In the past, we’ve done this work on a project-by-project basis spanning across Africa, Latin America and Asia. In the U.S., we formalized our connectivity work in 2017 by launching the Airband Initiative, with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to 3 million people in rural America by July 2022, and today marks the formalization of the international work within the Initiative.”
Like its project in the US, Microsoft hopes to empower and collaborate with local partners who know their communities’ geographies and needs to solve their community’s last mile connectivity challenges.
“Experience has taught us that diverse challenges require diverse solutions. What works in one part of South Africa may not be a fit for Ghana. A wireless technology or a business model that is suitable for connecting customers in one location might not be suitable for connecting customers in another location. Bringing broadband access to the world’s unserved communities will require much greater reliance on innovative technologies, regulatory approaches and business models. Our experience has shown us that a multi-stakeholder approach is needed to close the connectivity gap. While we might go faster alone, we go much farther together. For this reason, these programs seek to combine our and our partners’ expertise and assets,” added McKinley.
Airband International will rely on a four-part approach: removing regulatory obstacles to TV White Space (TVWS) and other technologies that help our partners extend their networks quickly in unserved, predominantly rural, areas; partnering with local internet service providers (ISPs) to provide affordable, reliable internet services; enabling rural digital transformation in newly connected areas, with a focus on supporting agriculture, education, rural entrepreneurship and telemedicine, as well as off-grid energy sources where necessary in order to improve rural productivity and livelihood; and finally, building a larger ecosystem of support, with a focus on stimulating international financing, to scale connectivity projects beyond our own direct investments.
As part of the Airband initiative, Microsoft has already partnered with Ghanaian government officials to ensure strong regulations were in place to deploy long-term solutions such as TVWS.
In Ghana, Microsoft has also partnered with BLUETOWN, a connectivity and digital content service provider committed to making broadband connectivity more accessible. With regulations in Ghana now permitting access to the TVWS, BLUETOWN is on a path to bring affordable broadband access to over 800,000 people living in the rural eastern part of Ghana who were previously underserved.
“Through our work and our engagement, we hope to not just connect people, but provide a blueprint for other public and private sector entities to think about connectivity as a core part of their investments in health, gender equity, water, energy or any other core area of sustainable development,” concludes McKinley.
“There are too many things that divide us in the world today. The internet can bring us closer together, foster new understandings and connections and remove structural barriers to opportunity and equality. Airband International is focused on doing just that, and we hope that you’ll add your support to these efforts as we move forward.”