Connecting the Unconnected

Bridging the digital equity gap has been a focus for Microsoft since July 2017, when it launched its Airband Initiative. The initiative aims to democratize access to technology, enabling more people to reach their full potential and furthering Microsoft’s mission to empower communities to achieve more. In this session dedicated to connecting the unconnected at the DSA Global Summit, we welcomed Fatema Kothari, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft’s Airband Initiative.

Outlining the purpose and approach of the program, Kothari told the session that while internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity and running water for many, millions across the world still lack access to this critical service and the opportunities connectivity brings. Half of the people in the world lack access to internet connectivity, she said, with the implication of that lack of access bought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact.

In the US, FCC coverage data suggests that 14.5 million people lack access to broadband with more than 11 million of those residing in rural areas and evidence suggests that the figures would be higher. Additionally, it is historically marginalized communities, says Kothari, including racial ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and people experiencing income insecurity, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and lack of in-home broadband.

As part of its aims to accelerate efforts globally through the provision of access to affordable internet, affordable devices and digital skills, Microsoft’s Airband program has set key targets:

  • Providing broadband access to 3 million people in the rural US by July 2022
  • Providing broadband access to 40 million unserved people globally by July 2022
  • Launching pilot projects in 8 major US cities by June 2021 to drive the adoption of affordable broadband, devices, and digital skills for communities of color and key institutions that support them.

Microsoft’s aim is not to become a network provider, Kothari said, but to work alongside people with the same goal of connecting people in order to bring opportunities. The Airband model is partnership driven, she said, offering a holistic approach to the challenges of the digital divide. Its efforts fall into four categories:

  • Connect – partnering with network operators to accelerate broadband access among unserved and underserved communities.
  • Transform – partnering with organizations including the public sector and NGOs to layer digitally transformative solutions on top of broadband networks to improve productivity, livelihood, and drive sustainable development.
  • Scale – partnering with government and intergovernmental organizations to gain financing to scale partnerships and projects.
  • Policy & Advocacy – underpinning any work with policy and advocacy efforts focused on immediate and longer term needs to address the digital divide.

Outlining Airband’s response to COVID-19, Kothari said the crisis significantly impacted those without reliable access to high-speed internet, making it clear that broadband access is a prerequisite for full participation in modern life.

Efforts during the pandemic focused on augmenting existing programming and policy efforts to keep people connected and leaning into opportunities to provide connectivity in areas lacking internet access, she said. Its two-pronged approach mobilized partners to maintain connectivity to customers financially impacted by the crisis and supported the deployment of hundreds of free public Wi-Fi hotspots. It also encouraged regulators to provide funding and policy recommendations to federal, state and local government to release funding and remove roadblocks hampering infrastructure efforts.

Kothari outlined four areas where broadband connectivity would bring clear benefits:

  • Healthcare – telehealth services such as remote monitoring and videoconferencing to improve health outcomes and reduce costs.
  • Agriculture – boosting farmers’ incomes by improving productivity, finding new customers and reducing costs.
  • Education – schools can expand learning options, offer virtual courses and enable remote collaboration.
  • Small businesses – enabling them to work remotely and reach more people.

She also provided two examples of Airband’s work to help those adversely affected by the pandemic.

Nigeria

In May, Microsoft announced a collaboration with the government in Nigeria – where internet penetration is around 50% – to build strong foundations for the digital economy across three pillars of connectivity, skilling and digital transformation. To achieve this, the Airband team is working with local partners to improve broadband connectivity in six regions and help with design and implementation of hyper scale cloud services.

Land O’Lakes agricultural cooperative

 Airband is working with the Land O’Lakes cooperative to connect its facilities with Airband ISP partners to increase broadband speeds and provide broadband to surrounding communities. Two pilot projects in partnership with Airband ISP Watch Communications and cooperative members are using fixed wireless broadband technology to provide speeds up to 100Mbps as well as working to incorporate the Internet of Things for uses like propane tank monitoring and precision agriculture.

Kothari’s session closed with a focus on the key question of what comprises ‘digital equity’.

For Microsoft, digital equity requires access to affordable, robust broadband or high-speed internet, broadband-enabled devices that meet the needs of their users, and digital skills – a necessity for wholesome civic and cultural participation, employment, and access to essential services. She outlined Microsoft’s ‘Principles of Digital Equity’, which form the basis for a holistic approach that it believes will help bridge the current digital inequity gap.

To hear the session in full, click here

To view more of the Global Summit 2021 sessions, you may find the on-demand sessions on the DSA YouTube channel.