Microsoft has partnered with Indigo Telecom to pilot broadband Internet access through unused television spectrum known as white spaces in rural areas to cover underserved areas in Africa.
Through a project dubbed Mawingu, Kiswahili word for cloud, solar power broadband base stations will deliver high-speed Internet in areas lacking electricity.
Other than Kenya, the solution, which is being implemented under the Microsoft 4Afrika project, has been unveiled in Nigeria, Egypt and Ivory Coast.
Microsoft hopes to implement similar projects in East and Southern Africa to further explore the commercial feasibility of white spaces technologies.
Microsoft intends to use the project to encourage other African countries to accelerate formulation of laws that will enable the white spaces technology to deliver on the universal access promise.
In Kenya, the project is being conducted in Nanyuki in Laikipia County where Microsoft and Indigo have connected county offices, Kenya Red Cross, Gakawa Secondary School and a community cyber cafe to the Internet.
“When we talk of a game-changer, Mawingu project will do for Kenya what the mobile phone has done. Rural parts of the country not only lack Internet connectivity but are also not connected to the electricity grid. However, this project is set to enable us to overcome our infrastructural challenges and allow for revolutionary innovation just like M-Pesa,” said Tonia Kariuki, marketing director Microsoft 4Afrika.
The maiden phase of the project will see 300km square, an area with a population of 60,000, in Laikipia County connected to the Internet. Microsoft targets to reach 6,000 users in this phase.
Mawingu uses low-cost, low-power, wireless broadband employing redundant or unused spectrum bands previously reserved for television broadcasting (also referred to as TV white spaces or TVWS).
The initiative also includes a plan to deliver low-cost Wi-Fi access to communities through co-operatives. Subscribers will be charged a small fee for Internet use. The funds will be reinvested in the project to make it sustainable.
White spaces technology was developed over 10 years ago, in part by Microsoft Research, and has been extensively tested in trials conducted by Microsoft and other firms in cooperation with governments including the United States, Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and the UK to name a few.
“This is not charity. We fully intend to make money by reaching those who have previously been unable to access the Internet either because of where they live or because they cannot afford it,” Ms Kariuki said.
Microsoft is revamping its strategy to accelerate development of computing services and hardware, a move that saw it agree this month to buy Nokia’s handset unit for $7.2 billion (Sh626 billion).
The deployment of Internet infrastructure will fall within its new business strategy.
“It is not a secret that we are a company in transition. Going forward, as a devices and services company, we are looking for opportunities in untapped markets such as rural Kenya,” Ms Kariuki said.
She said that the service won’t be free for ever as the firm was looking forward to commercialising it with a nod from industry regulator Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK).
Through the project, Microsoft also aims to bring one million small and medium enterprises (SMEs) online, raise skills of 100,000 people and help an additional 100,000 recent graduates develop skills for employment — 75 per cent of who the company will help to place in jobs.
Laikipia leaders have welcomed the initiative with the county’s ICT and Education executive John Bosco saying it will help address Internet access gaps.
“Northern Laikipia is extremely hard to reach and it may take ages before the electricity grid is extended or our leading mobile operators put up their masts. But the Microsoft project overcomes such barriers,” Mr Bosco said.
The country has 11.5 million Internet users, according to statistics from the CAK and majority are those in urban areas.