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Brazil’s space agency plans to use balloons to hover internet-transmitting base stations over rural parts of the country. Google is running a similar project called Loon but critics suggest that it is the high cost of IT equipment, not connectivity, which is hindering innovation in Africa. [1]

Oliver Bell, Microsoft’s chief technology officer overseeing humanitarian and development activities, tells me the private sector has a crucial role to play in establishing telecoms infrastructure in the developing world.

“The way the sector approached corporate social responsibility has changed over the last decade,” he says. “Go back ten years and CSR often involved engaging in a small pilot to bring Wi-Fi to a village in Africa or Asia, then writing up and publishing a case study, often without a plan to scale the project.”

“But if you look at some of the economic growth that’s taken place in Latin America, Africa and Asia, we’re now at the point where we can take some of those same ideas and build a real sustainable business model around them.”

“The private sector has a crucial role to play in establishing telecoms infrastructure in the developing world.”

Oliver Bell, Microsoft

This means long-term investment in developing countries has begun to attract the interest of the private sector. Like Google, Microsoft too is working on a project to bring broadband internet to Africa.

Its Kenya-based initiative is called Mawingu (the Swahili word for ‘cloud’). Bell says it uses similar technology to the Brazilian efforts. As TV signals have become digitised, some now-redundant analogue frequencies — so-called ‘TV white space’ — can be used to host internet signals. Though the Mawingu plans involve erecting solar-powered transmitter masts rather than launching balloons like Google, Bell simply puts this difference down to different views about what technology will have the greatest impact.

But Bell adds that, for such projects to be at their best, they need input from public bodies too. For example, nations themselves must regulate white space frequencies. “The US Agency for International Development has been part of our project,” he says, and it has had an “instrumental role” in sending experienced officials from the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcast frequencies across the United States, to spend time with their counterparts in Kenya.

Bell emphasises, though, that projects like these are not about charity. “I’m uncomfortable with the word ‘philanthropy’,” he says. “If you think about what a company is — essentially shareholders wanting a return on investment — then it’s clear that’s not really something we’re set up to do.”

It’s Bell’s job to think through how his company can act responsibly while still making a return on its investment.

“We think in ten years’ time, once Africa has comprehensive internet coverage, there will be a lot of people who could become our potential customers,” he says.

Joshua Howgego is SciDev.Net’s deputy news and opinion editor.

See below for a video about the Mawingu project:

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[1] David Talbot African entrepreneurs deflate Google’s internet balloon idea (MIT Technology Review, 20 June 2013)