Guest Articles

August 18

Paul Garnett

‘Internet Access is Like Oxygen’: Converging Connectivity and Energy Access

I recently returned from a business trip that took me to the foothills of the Himalayas, where I met Tenzingompo, a Tibetan man who is helping deploy an internet access project in central India. Tenzingompo, who leads network deployments for a company called AirJaldi, made a memorable remark about the process of bringing connectivity to hard-to-reach corners of the world.

“Internet access is like oxygen,” he said. “Once you have it, you cannot live without it.”

I traveled to the Himalayas as part of my work with Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative (AAI), which helps bring internet access and related services to underserved communities in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and North America. The work is important because half the world’s population today lacks internet access and all the benefits that flow from participating in our digital economy.

Through the Affordable Access Initiative Grant Fund – the second round of which we announced in June – Microsoft supports, accelerates and helps scale innovative businesses developing technologies and business models to expand internet connectivity, provide access to energy and support Internet of Things (IoT) projects in their communities.

Airjaldi is a 2016 grant fund winner that provides internet access to the town of Harisal, in Central India, and the surrounding area. In collaboration with partners last year, AirJaldi created a “digital village” with broadband access spreading across more than 70 surrounding communities. This region, which had no internet access just a year ago, today has more than 3,000 monthly active users of AirJaldi’s service.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the good fortune of visiting several other Affordable Access Initiative partners, as well. Among those, Mawingu Networks, located in Nanyuki, Kenya, provides affordable, reliable and fast internet access to more than 500 homes and businesses in small towns and rural communities. In fact, after just two years of operation, they are providing “pay-as-you-grow” access to more than 20,000 active users for as little as $2 a month. Mawingu is also rapidly expanding its solar-powered broadband network to larger communities, alongside many small towns and villages.

While in Nanyuki, I also spent time with Charlie Nichols from SunCulture, one of our most recent grant recipients. SunCulture is the first company to commercialize solar-powered irrigation in Africa, with a turnkey solution: irrigation systems that leverage solar-powered pumps and drip irrigation to help reduce costs and increase yields. While in Nanyuki I met farmers and saw the impact of the technology firsthand. With AAI grant funds, SunCulture will develop sensor and camera technologies, alongside Microsoft Azure machine learning, to predict and prevent damaging pest outbreaks. Because this will require connectivity, SunCulture will work with Mawingu to determine how best to deliver IoT connectivity to farmers, alongside affordable and reliable high-speed internet access. It’s a thrill for us to see AAI grant winners work together to benefit their communities.

I also visited Charles Mwaura and the team at Brightwave in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. Brightwave is deploying a Wi-Fi network that will connect more than 213,000 students at more than 500 primary and secondary schools, as well as nearly 70 health care clinics across a wide expanse of underserved, rural communities. This deployment is co-funded by Microsoft and Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa.

Meeting our AAI partners on this journey was a real privilege, and affirmation for me that high-speed internet connectivity is as important as the roads and bridges that connect us. At the same time, it’s a daunting challenge that such a large portion of the world’s population continues to lack the information and tools they need to build better livelihoods and thrive in a digital world. That’s why it is so important to recognize the ingenuity and strides of small businesspeople working to bring the internet and connected services to their communities, and to support their work. These entrepreneurs are forging new partnerships, using the cloud in increasingly sophisticated ways and leveraging technologies that range from IoT to data reporting and analytics, to machine learning, and even artificial intelligence.

Please take a moment to learn more about this year’s Affordable Access Initiative grant recipients and consider how we can continue to work together to extend the bridge of connectivity and economic opportunity to everyone.


Paul Garnett is senior director of the Affordable Access Initiative at Microsoft.

Top image: Alex Okuonzi Bahati of VisionNet, one of Microsoft’s AAI grant recipients. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Homepage photo credit: Lawrence L, via Flickr.




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