MICROSOFT AWARDS FIRST GRANTS TO HELP EXPAND GLOBAL INTERNET ACCESS
May 24, 2016 by By Vindu Goel
SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft has largely stood by as other technology giants like Facebook and Google have begun work on grand plans for balloons, satellites, drones, simplified apps and even bicycle hot spots to deliver Internet access to the four billion or so people around the world who are not yet online.
The venerable software company, still best known for the Windows software that runs most of the world’s personal computers, did buy the handset business of Nokia, the Finnish cellphone maker, in 2014 — a platform that could have been the basis of a mobile access strategy — only to write off most of the business a year later and sell the low-end side of it last week.
But now Microsoft finally seems to be settling on a strategy for addressing the great global disconnect: It is going to fund other businesses developing local solutions and help build the ones that show the most promise.
On Tuesday, the company, which is based in Redmond, Wash., announced the first winners of grants under a new program called the Affordable Access Initiative. The 12 recipients, who will get $70,000 to $150,000 apiece, include a company in Rwanda franchising solar-powered mobile kiosks that provide Wi-Fi and battery recharges, and an Argentine firm that uses monitoring technologies and chatbots so that farmers can keep tabs remotely on the health of their cattle.
That’s a pittance compared with Google, which has built a fiber-optic network in Uganda’s capital and has struck deals in Sri Lanka and Indonesia to eventually beam the Internet down from high-altitude balloons. Nor does it display the ambition of Facebook, which offers a free set of basic Internet services with local phone companies in more than three dozen countries and is testing the first of a planned fleet of large, ultralight drones to deliver Internet service from on high.
Microsoft said it had concluded that such grand solutions, conceived and driven by American companies, would take many years to put into practice and would not work everywhere.
“We are taking a different approach than some of the others in the area. We are partnering with the locals,” said Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice president for business development. “We are focused on the here and now and what you can do in the existing ecosystem.”
Microsoft plans to offer more grants and is likely to provide additional financial support to the projects that show the greatest promise.
All of the current grant recipients are for-profit enterprises. One of them, Axiom Technologies, is based in eastern Maine and will use the money to expand Internet access there. Another recipient, AirJaldi, already works with Facebook to deliver wireless Internet service in rural India.
Microsoft’s previous affordable access projects focused on experiments with a technology called white spaces, which uses vacant television bandwidth to wirelessly deliver the Internet over long distances.
In January, the company pledged to donate $1 billion in cloud services to nonprofit organizations and universities, and some of that commitment will now be spent to help the communities in which the current round of grant recipients will be working.
Paul Garnett, director of Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative, said the company would announce partnerships with bigger companies later in the year that would have a much bigger impact than the current projects.
Microsoft’s approach “has been toe in the water, but it’s now foot in the water at least,” he said.