Microsoft is ramping up its efforts to bring affordable Internet access to underserved parts of the globe with the launch of a new fund that will invest in companies that are solving problems associated with bringing the Internet to the 4 billion people worldwide who are still disconnected. The fund will aid in entrepreneurial efforts focused on last-mile access technologies, cloud-based services and applications, new payment mechanisms, and other innovative business models that help get people online.
In order to qualify, applicants must be commercial organizations with at least two full-time employees, and have a working prototype and preferably paying customers, says Microsoft. That still leaves a lot of room for smaller startups to participate and apply for funding, however.
Microsoft says that fund recipients will be given $75,000 in funding, free software and services, and will also have the opportunity to participate in a company program that will allow them to connect with the other grant recipients as well as with other investors.
The company suggests that some of the solutions it’s looking for from applicants could include things like new products and business models that combine cloud services and applications; low-cost forms of Internet connectivity; or new payment mechanisms aimed at consumers and small businesses in these emerging markets that are just now being brought online. (A full list of criteria is available on Microsoft’s website here.)
The fund is a part of Microsoft’s larger Affordable Access Initiative, which also includes related efforts like the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, aimed at investing in the economic development in the region, as well as Microsoft’s deployment of TV white spaces technology – a move to repurpose unused TV frequencies in order to provide affordable Internet access to communities.
Microsoft also notes that recipients will be able to retain their own IP, including copyrights, patents, trademarks, and more, though Microsoft may provide limited technical guidance related to deployment, plus advice and suggestions with regard to business plans, architecture, feature set, and performance.
Applicants must submit proposals by 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time on January 15, 2016 to be considered.
Bringing Internet access to underserved markets is something all the major tech firms are investing in, each in their own way.
Facebook, for example, launched its Internet.org initiative in partnership with telecoms to bring the web to people around the world, and has previously invested in other stripped down versions of its own service like Facebook Zero and Facebook Lite. And both Facebook and Google are thinking up innovative ways to actually deliver signals to these regions, the former with drones, and the latter with its Project Loon balloons.
For these companies, their investments are not entirely altruistic. Bringing more of the world’s population online will greatly impact their bottom line, whether that’s new end users for their products, new advertisers, or new customers for their own cloud-based services.
“Today there are approximately 4 billion people globally without Internet access,” said Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice President of Business Development at Microsoft, in a statement about the newly launched fund. “The ability to close that gap is more achievable than ever with technology that is readily available and affordable in many parts of the world. Through this fund, we hope to kick-start the entrepreneurial process by identifying promising ideas that we can help nurture, grow and scale.”