Africa Gets Cutting-Edge Solar Broadband, Phones From Microsoft

Microsoft has launched a Kenyan pilot network of solar-powered towers that tap into unlicensed "white space" frequencies to provide wireless connectivity to rural communities in the east African nation. Microsoft also said it would contribute "tens of millions of smart devices" in consumers and small businesses by 2016, with a phone it co-designed with Huawei.

Microsoft's work is being done as part of its Microsoft4Afrika Initiative, which aims to bring 1 million African businesses online and assist up to 200,000 Africans by teaching them entrepreneurship and other business skills. The technology deployed in Africa could be eventually deployed in the U.S.

You might think of this as a charity. It's not. In fact, this project highlights an interesting dichotomy with how some people see efforts by charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, plus celebrities like Bono and Bob Geldof, who allegedly collect money for Africa, but don't actually provide the means for Africa to grow - turning Africa into a "theme park for good intentions."

For Microsoft, this is about investment. 

"When we look at the world, many see China or the BRIC countries as the next big opportunity for growth," Ali Faramawy, corporate vice president, for Microsoft Middle East & Africa, wrote in a blog post Tuesday. "At Microsoft, we view the African continent as a game-changer in the global economy."

So what is Microsoft doing besides just donating money? Building.

Kenya Gets More Broadband

In collaboration with the government of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications and Indigo Telecom Ltd., Microsoft said it would launch a pilot project, dubbed "Mawingu," delivering low-cost wireless broadband access to previously unserved locations near Nanyuki and Kalema, Kenya. The base stations use solar panels, often mounted on roofs, and conventional TV aerials, according to a video of the technology. 

So-called "white space" frequencies are the Wild West of radio, unlicensed spectrum not currently being used. As such, they run free of interference, which can improve their range and performance. Microsoft is teaming with Adaptrum to develop the base stations, while trying to convince local governments to adopt the technology continent-wide. Up to 6,000 people will eventually be served by the stations.

In the U.S., the technology is slowly making its way through the FCC, as long as it doen't impede licensed frequencies. The FCC is collecting "databases" of the available frequencies, so radio devices can stick to these white spaces.

First World Disconnect

Somewhat crassly, the video also includes scenes of Microsoft executives handing out Surface tablets to rural African students. The disparity between the brightly colored tablets and the packed dirt floors of the school does make one wonder whether Microsoft's money could be better spent, until the students begin quickly flicking through the tablets, and apparently start learning. Indigo Telecom chairman's metaphor of a "mist of information" floating over the school suddenly seems less hyperbolic. And yes, the kids can apparently use Windows 8.

Microsoft will also co-develop a low-cost Windows Phone 8 phone with Huawei, the Asian developer who has specialized in low-cost phones. The phone looks like any other Windows Phone: it's a customized version of the Ascend W1, launched at CES last month: 4-inch 480 x 800 touch LCD, 5 Mpixel camera, dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 and Adreno 305 GPU. More importantly, however, it can deliver up to 420 hours of standby time and 560 minutes of 3G talk time via aggressive power saving.  

The phone will initially be available in Angola, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa later this month. The Huawei 4Afrika phone, which is the first in a series of smart devices branded with “4Afrika,” will be targeted toward university students, developers and first-time smartphone users, the company said.

It's not the first smartphone designed for the continent. Safaricom and Intel launched the Yolo in Nairobi last month, powered by Kenya's Safaricom.

Microsoft's Charity Track Record

Granted, it appears that Microsoft's 4Afrika Initiative will place millions of Windows Phones and Surface devices into Africa as part of the program through the next few years. Cynics will chuckle snidely and call this dumping failed products into a market where they'll never be seen again.

That's not the way it should be seen. Whether charity or investment, few companies take the time, or spend the money, to improve developing nations. Last September, Microsoft said it would "close the opportunity divide" through YouthSpark, funded by $500 million over three years.

Between July 2011 and June 2012, Microsoft gave $900 million in cash and software to more than 62,200 nonprofits worldwide, Microsoft representatives said. Of this total, nearly $100 million in cash alone was donated to charities through the employee giving program. Since 1983, Microsoft employees have raised $1 billion in cash (inclusive of the company match) for more than 31,000 nonprofits and community organizations around the world. Kenya's Daily Nation reported that Microsoft will spend the equivalent of $75 million as part of the 4Afrika Initative. That's 6.52 billion Kenyan shillings.

That kind of investment goes a long way in Africa.

(Updated at 3:39 PM with additional comment from Microsoft.)