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Forget balloons and drones: How Microsoft plans to get more people online

Microsoft wants to lend a $75,000 hand to startups with technology that can boost affordable last-mile access.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Microsoft doesn't have any drone or balloon projects to bring internet to underserved places, but the company does have cash to fund projects that deliver affordable access.

Recently announcing Microsoft Philanthropies, Microsoft's top lawyer Brad Smith highlighted the group will be investing in nonprofit programs that complement its Affordable Access Initiative. On top of offering $75,000 grants to tech companies that can boost connectivity, the company will invest in digital education programs.

While Google's focus with Project Loon is on expanding mobile connectivity and extending the reach of mobile network operators it's partnering with, Microsoft's connectivity project wants to support technology that can bring affordable last-mile access to underserved markets.

"The foundational challenge to achieve more is acute in developing markets where affordable last-mile Internet access and the ability to leverage cloud-based applications is often lacking," it noes.

One example of the technology it's keen on is TV white space, which uses spectrum for TV broadcasting to deliver long-range wi-fi access and extend the reach of existing broadband networks.

In a blog post, Microsoft said it is partnering with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities (MBC) in the US to extend its fibre-optic networks. That project uses white space and wi-fi technologies from US firm Adaptrum and Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek and aims to "close the homework gap" by offering connectivity specifically to local school students.

Outside the US, it points to access projects aimed at schools, universities, healthcare clinics, community centres and police stations.

Another project that fits the bill for Microsoft's access initiative comes from Kenyan network operator Mawingu Networks. "In Nanyuki, Kenya, our network operator partner, Mawingu Networks, is rapidly extending the reach of its wireless broadband network, delivering low-cost "packets and power" to small businesses and individuals in rural communities," Microsoft notes.

Separately, Microsoft has recently announced a white-spaces initiative for India, where its partnering with Bangalore-based fabless company Saankhya. Though Microsoft's project reportedly has faced a backlash from local mobile network operators that are unhappy it hasn't been required to buy spectrum under an auction as they are.

Applicants to Microsoft's connectivity program need to have a working prototype of a product that can combine cloud services, low-cost forms of internet connectivity, and new payment mechanisms. Companies with a potentially fundable project will need to apply by January 15, 2016.

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