Connecting Asia’s Unconnected – an affordable and innovative approach

By Frank McCosker, General Manager, Global Strategic Accounts, Worldwide Public Sector, Microsoft

Providing universal Internet connectivity, at broadband speed, is increasingly important for fostering economic and social development in Asia. That is why, this week at the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Annual Meeting in the Philippines, the ADB NGO Center, in partnership with Microsoft and hardware partner Adaptrum, will demonstrate innovative wireless technology that has the power to transform citizens’ lives and stimulate economic growth.

As a region, Asia-Pacific has both some of the highest and lowest broadband penetration rates in the world. Even countries like South Korea and Singapore, which have some of the highest Internet penetration rates, have had problems connecting the remaining parts of their populations in an affordable and efficient manner. For those countries yet to reach a critical mass of connected citizens, the imperative to connect to increase national competitiveness is even greater. According to a McKinsey & Company executive, a 10% increase in broadband connectivity can yield an approximate rise in GDP of .06-.07%.

With so much on the line, the importance of expanding broadband access is clear; the challenge is how to do it affordably and efficiently.

Adaptrum_4_30_12For the past several years, Microsoft Research, in collaboration with many industry and government partners, has been working on new technology sometimes referred to as “Super Wi-Fi.” What makes this technology “super” is how it actually works. The technology transmits data via unused TV channels and it does so in a way that does not disrupt existing TV broadcasts. Using this part of the spectrum has many benefits.

First, the distances covered by such technology can be anywhere between 3 and 10 times greater than those covered by existing unlicensed wireless solutions. Second, just like TV, the signal is much less impeded by obstructions like walls or buildings that tend to disrupt wireless signals. Using this spectrum non-exclusively in an unlicensed or “license-exempt” manner will enable any entity – from the largest mobile operator to a single user or village – to take advantage of this technology.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of “Super Wi-Fi” for developing countries is the ability to provide wireless solutions at a much lower cost than traditional systems. Low-powered and low-cost TV Spectrum-based wireless base-stations could connect entire villages, schools, and hospitals in impoverished rural settings, enabling much higher economic rates of return.

“Super Wi-Fi” can also help to address the increasing consumer demand for Internet-connected wireless devices in the more developed countries in the Asia-Pacific region. By leveraging the dynamic allocation of unused spectrum, the number of devices that can connect to the Internet can be drastically increased. The best news about this technology is that we should soon be seeing it reach its commercialization tipping point. Last week, in the United Kingdom where I live, the municipality of Cambridge announced the success of a large scale pilot project with over 15 participating partners. Meanwhile, in Asia, Microsoft is working with the government of Singapore and local partners on a “Super Wi-Fi” pilot to launch in the latter part of 2012.

Governments and other organizations around the world are becoming increasingly interested in “Super Wi-Fi” as a potential solution to many of the connectivity challenges facing both developed and developing countries. The demonstration at the ADB annual meeting in Manila provides another opportunity for civil society leaders to discover “Super Wi-Fi’s” potential benefits to help scale their engagement and collaboration with citizens. We are excited to be showing such powerful technology alongside the Asian Development Bank, our partner since 2007.

Universal access to broadband will be one of the most important drivers of economic growth in the coming decade. While the need is urgent, figuring out how to achieve this goal is still an enormous challenge. We don’t believe “Super Wi-Fi” will be the only solution to achieving universal broadband access, but we do believe it will be a key component as governments and organizations continue to identify new ways to connect their citizens.

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