Viasat and Microsoft are joining forces to help close the digital divide in underserved parts of Africa, Latin America, and the United States.
Together, the companies aim to help deliver internet access to 10 million people worldwide, including 5 million across Africa. Viasat is the first satellite internet provider to partner with Microsoft on the far-reaching project, known as the Airband Initiative.
Together, they will deepen Airband’s work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States, as well as prioritize expanding the program to Egypt, Senegal and Angola to deliver much-needed internet connections, often for the first time.
“We’re proud to partner with Microsoft as it represents another important step in bringing affordable internet service to millions of people across Africa, Latin America and the U.S., as both companies continue to break down barriers to bridge the digital divide and make significant progress toward digital equity and inclusion,” said Evan Dixon, Viasat’s president of global fixed broadband services. “Providing internet access to the world is a challenging and bold goal, and doing so in a sustainable and responsible manner will unlock enduring opportunities for those who need it most.”
Microsoft and Viasat are focused on helping to close the digital divide for people and communities globally. The ability to connect to quality internet is an enduring part of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth globally.
The partnership is so significant it was mentioned in President Biden’s Dec. 14 remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in Washington, D.C. Biden announced the Digital Transformation for Africa initiative, designed to ensure more people in the country can participate in the digital economy.
“That includes partnerships like a new collaboration between Microsoft and Viasat to (help) bring internet access to 5 million Africans...”
Microsoft’s Airband Initiative was launched in 2017 to advance access to high-speed internet and meaningful connectivity. As part of this initiative, Microsoft partners with internet service providers, community organizations, public policy groups, and government, using hybrid technologies to bring cost-effective high-speed internet to unserved and underserved communities.
Viasat has been working across South America, Africa, and within the United States and Europe to provide affordable, quality broadband to disadvantaged communities. Viasat collaborates with governments and other entities, using its own and other companies’ satellites and ground networks to enable that access.
The new joint project will merge those separate missions, leveraging the strengths of each company.
The Digital Divide
The term “digital divide” was coined in the last 20th century and initially referred to those who had access to cellphone coverage and those that did not. Since that time, society’s use of connectivity and the internet has greatly expanded. Today’s understanding of the broad impacts of access to digital resources means that the digital divide now refers more broadly to not only physical access to the overall internet, but also the financial means to access it.
According to the Internet Society, there is not one single digital divide, but a number of different factors that contribute to this lack of opportunity for growth and improvement. Among these are access, affordability, and quality.
The first requirement for bridging the divide is having a connection point to the internet. Second is determining if people within the area can afford to purchase and use the internet on a regular basis for their educational, professional, and personal needs. Finally, speeds must be sufficient to support the types of online activities a community needs to perform. In order to close the digital divide, all three of these factors need to be met.
Viasat acknowledged these factors in their latest Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report.
“A key component of Viasat’s strategy is our focus on bandwidth productivity — our ability to deliver more bandwidth to the unserved and underserved population per unit of capital and operating costs than any other space provider,” reads Viasat’s 2022 ESG report. “Connectivity is a fundamental precursor for economic prosperity. It empowers people to share ideas, keep in touch, stay safe, and connect with a world of opportunity.”
The digital divide cuts across both demographics and regions, but one of the most significant divides exists between rural and urban communities.
Reaching underserved communities
Roughly 2.7 billion people globally remain unconnected to the internet, either because it’s not available or they can’t afford it. That means nearly one third of the world’s population could benefit from enhanced access to education, medical care, economic opportunities, connection with distant family, and more.
Most of this population lives in just 20 countries across Africa and the area of the globe south of the equator, specifically South America.
Using satellite technology, remote areas that previously had few — if any — options for conventional connectivity can now access high-speed internet.
Viasat and Microsoft will combine expertise and assets to help deliver telehealth, distance learning and education, entrepreneurial business development, financial activities like access to banking, precision agriculture, clean power and other online services to new areas and communities.
Viasat is well-versed in this work, and is proud of efforts that are already connecting many urban and rural communities worldwide that previously had no or poor-quality internet. The upcoming launch of the ViaSat-3 constellation is expected to provide additional bandwidth, expanding the company’s global footprint and accelerating its digital inclusion efforts.
Working together, Microsoft and Viasat plan to provide access to affordable connectivity by creating links between larger, core network and the smaller subnetworks. These smaller subnetworks are the “last mile,” or the final connection between a provider’s network and the end user or a community, a customer’s home, or a business. It is generally the most expensive part of the network to build or upgrade.
To resolve or mitigate those service hurdles, companies like Microsoft and Viasat often work with other companies to mix networks, creating more cost-effective solutions.
Through its Airband Initiative, to date Microsoft has delivered high-speed internet access to more than 51 million people globally, including over 4 million in unserved U.S. rural communities and an additional 47 million in 16 unserved and underserved countries outside of the U.S.
Beginning in 2017, Viasat installed low-cost hotspot and other shared terminal services in communities across Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil. People living in these areas can prepay for service and connect their device to the hotspot. It’s typically the only way to access service in these remote areas. Those who use the service say it’s transformed their lives, improving farming techniques, education opportunities, healthcare, and connections with family.
In addition to connecting people to high-speed internet at a reasonable price, Viasat is seeking ways to help disadvantaged communities solve other problems that affect their ability to connect. That can mean adding solar power to areas that are off the grid, donating devices, or providing technical expertise.
Viasat is proud to be a partner with Microsoft in this important effort and looks forward to collaborating for years to come.