Closing the Digital Divide: An Interview with Frank McCosker of Microsoft

Technology has been one of the most fastest-growing sectors around the globe with the development of new and innovative ways to access, communicate and disseminate information, as well as education and entertainment across the world.  Although experiencing tidal growth, the persistent challenges to the technological boom, mainly affordability, have remained forceful barriers to inclusivity, accessibility and equal opportunity, scaling on a digital divide seen in small remote communities mostly in Africa.  Microsoft, as one of the leading investors in technology, is finding new and smart ways to making access to technology and finance more affordable for the ICT ecosystem in African countries.  

Speaking at the Fifth Annual Dynamic Spectrum Alliance Global Summit in Cape Town was Frank McCosker, General Manager of Affordable Access and Smart Financing in Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiatives.  McCosker is responsible for designing and implementing affordable access projects in a number of countries in Africa where he has utilised new technologies centred on affordability and accessibility, including TV white space technologies and dynamic spectrum allocation to expire the era of the digital divide.

“It’s about equal opportunity,” said McCosker; “People want an equal share of the economy, and it’s getting to a point where the internet is considered a utility, and people feel they should have equal rights to access that utility.  So, I think it’s important from that perspective that everybody gets the same opportunities, that’s why we should at least cross the digital divide.”

This innovation reduces the cost of deploying last-mile wireless networks to make wireless broadband more affordable and accessible for people around the world.  Microsoft’s project has seen growth alongside elevating communities in countries such as Kenya, where it launched its first connectivity pilot in Nanyuki using TV white spaces technology.  Before the 4Afrika initiative was implemented in Kenya, only 17% of adults and 9% of teenagers in Nanyuki made use of the internet.  Currently, there are over 26 schools connected to the internet.  

The largest project in terms of size is seen in Namibia, with 9500 square kilometres of expansion of connectivity from Northern Namibia, connecting 22 schools to the internet.  

“The real impact in terms of education is increasing the quality of education and, more importantly, the outcome of the education,” said McCosker, reflecting on the voyage of the various initiatives.

The other major impact that came out of the Kenya Project is the reduced pricing of connectivity.  McCosker explained that the initiative managed to drop the cost of internet access to US$3 a month, “And that’s really about making a more affordable commensurate to the income of the people,” said McCosker.

Other countries spearheaded by the 4Afrika Initiative include Ghana, Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, and South Africa, connecting schools, organisations, wildlife conservations, healthcare centres and government offices in remote areas.  In Botswana, three hospitals and five auxiliary clinics are providing advanced telemedicine services to over 3,000 patients for the first time.

The dynamic spectrum technology works through channels in the radius space, a system similar to that of wifi.  The TV white space is used for open radio channels to connect to the internet.  It is a low-cost and low-power innovation that gives fastline connectivity.

Although this innovative technology may seem complex, McCosker said that the biggest hurdle now is not so much the technology, but the regulation around the technology and the regulators allowing commercial entities to use the spectrum in a dynamic way.

“It’s the regulators and the practitioners where we say how can we utilize this space, and some countries across the planet have deregulated this space,” said McCosker, adding that countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Singapore, have deregulated this space, and policymakers on regulations in Africa are still working out ways to standardize the technology.  He added that South Africa had recently announced the compensation on the space, “So they are in the process of figuring out what to do and how to do it.”

The Dynamic Spectrum Alliance is the premier event for policymakers and regulators to share and learn about the latest spectrum policies and how to maximise social and economic impact in urban cities and in remote regions across the globe.  McCosker, being on the panel with members of government, the finance community, and commercial operators, said that the institutional development finance, including the Industrial Corporation of America, the United States Government and the World Bank, their main feedback was: “We want to become your strategic partner and we want to go on a journey with you,” and representatives from South Africa were also showing willingness to help bridge access to a more affordable price to more people across South Africa and the rest of the continent.

McCosker said the solution to the allocation is to get the dynamic spectrum reallocated in a regulated fashion.  “The regulators say we can use these channels for open access and that’s essentially the way they do for wifi.  We’re saying the TV white spaces are unused spaces which should be allocated dynamically in that way,” he explained.  

One of the concerns and causes to delayed decision-making towards this innovation is the risks of losing investment capital; however, the general manager emphasised that risks are there to be assessed and managed accordingly so that implementation is successful and impactful.  

“It’s an exciting and new area for Microsoft,” said McCosker.  “It’s the technology that can really make a big difference with the low cost and low power requirement, and that’s the key to unlocking the digital divide.”

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