Over the past five years, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative has helped bring internet access to more than 51 million people in rural America and around the world — and now a new partnership with Viasat aims to kick Airband into overdrive.
The partnership, announced today in conjunction with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., will take advantage of Viasat’s satellite network to extend internet access to 10 million people globally, including 5 million in Africa. It’s part of a wider Airband campaign to help connect a quarter of a billion people, including 100 million in Africa, by the end of 2025.
Vickie Robinson, general manager of the Airband Initiative, said Africa is of special interest not only because “there’s so much opportunity there” but also because of the continent’s technological challenges. Only 40% of the African continent is online, and nearly 600 million Africans lack access to electricity.
“We provide access to technology and resources, and a trusted model for going about doing this work, bringing together not only internet service providers, but also nonprofit energy access providers,” she explained.
The Airband Initiative provides seed investments to support expanded infrastructure in regions that need it. Robinson declined to put a dollar figure on Microsoft’s contribution — but much of the work is done through partnerships.
“We have this ecosystem of partners that we bring to bear, and I think that’s a little bit different from what others are doing,” she said. The initiative’s beneficiaries may not even know that Microsoft played a part it providing internet access.
Previously, Microsoft has worked with its partners to provide internet access through fixed wireless, TV white-space bandwidth, fiber optics or Citizens Broadband Radio Service. The newly announced Viasat partnership is the first to make use of satellite connectivity. It’ll prioritize the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal and Angola in Africa, plus Guatemala, Mexico and underserved areas of the United States.
Viasat’s involvement in Airband builds upon the company’s existing partnership with Microsoft Azure Space. Another Microsoft partner is SpaceX, which is providing access to Azure cloud connectivity through its Starlink satellite constellation. Robinson said she wouldn’t rule out bringing Starlink into the Airband project.
“Anything’s possible,” she said. “We are a big tent, and we’re open to partner with mission-aligned partners — be they SpaceX, or anyone else for that matter.”
On another front, Microsoft will be offering free access to LinkedIn cybersecurity courses as part of its Skills for Jobs program. Teresa Hutson, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for technology and corporate responsibility, said in a blog posting that the Airband Initiative and the cybersecurity training initiative are aimed at strengthening connections with Africa that go back more than 30 years.
“We’re increasing our investments to help people and governments across Africa in enabling transformation and economic prosperity,” Hutson said. “This is just the beginning of the next chapter.”