Fast and reliable internet connectivity brings new hope to rural villages

Just a few years ago the people of Churni probably would have had a better chance of spotting an endangered tiger than enjoying a steady internet signal. Doing simple everyday tasks online in this out-of-the-way community in the western India state of Maharashtra was hit-or-miss at best.

But things are looking up in this remote tribal village thanks to AirJaldi. The internet service provider is helping connect hundreds of thousands of people in rural and semi-urban pockets across India as part of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, which aims to extend internet access to millions of people around the world.

A Common Services Center offering access to essential government e-services in Churni used to struggle with the village’s flaky internet connection. It was so unreliable many people simply chose to travel 65 kilometers (40 miles) to another town with better connectivity to do their online chores like filing legal documents or accessing government services.

The center’s owner Aakash Alokar admits now that he came close to shutting up shop in frustration. “I had invested a lot in 2G and 3G connections, but those networks worked only in fits and starts,” he recalls.

His fortunes changed, however, when AirJaldi brought high-speed broadband to the area three years ago. His business has been growing steadily ever since and he has just recruited two employees to help meet demand from customers from Churni as well as three surrounding villages.

Villagers queue up at Aakash Alokar’s Common Services Center in Churni. (Photo: Ashish Alokar for Microsoft)

“Connectivity has not just improved, it is speedier than in some big cities now,” reckons Alokar, a computer science graduate and budding entrepreneur who has expanded banking to his list of online services.

These days, people queue up at the center to deposit and withdraw money or process government paperwork online, including signing up for India’s national identity card project, “Aadhaar”.

Alokar is among hundreds of small and medium business owners across India who have benefitted from AirJaldi’s efforts to bring reliable internet access to India’s hinterland where poor infrastructure and smaller customer numbers have discouraged major internet providers from moving in.

India has the second largest online population in the world and the number of internet users in the country is multiplying fast. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of room for growth. Some estimates say that only half of India’s 1.35 billion people have reliable internet access.

“Without connectivity, you cannot talk about improving people’s livelihoods, well-being, or voice,” says Michael Ginguld, who co-founded AirJaldi with three others in 2009. “Our approach really was to build networks in areas that are not necessarily reached by others.”

Ginguld, who grew up in a Kibbutz in Israel, has been working with underserved and marginalized communities across the world since the late 1980s.

The digital divide and region-specific regulatory challenges are not unique to India, he says. Nearly half of the world’s population does not have internet access. This can worsen existing societal and economic inequalities – a problem that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Michael Ginguld grew up in a Kibbutz in Israel, and has been working with underserved and marginalized communities across the world. He co-founded AirJaldi in 2009 with three others to bring reliable internet access to India’s hinterlands. (Photo: AirJaldi)

Microsoft officially launched the Airband Initiative in 2017 in the United States and expanded it globally two years later with a goal of extending internet access to 40 million unserved and underserved people worldwide—including in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the U.S.—by July 2022.

“Rural communities around the world lacking broadband access miss out on opportunities for digital transformation, including the ability to participate in the digital economy. We started the Airband Initiative to foster local partnerships with public and private sector organizations focused on bringing the internet to rural areas and building solutions and services that empower community members to achieve more,” says Kevin Connolly, director, Airband International, Microsoft.

Microsoft awarded an “Affordable Access” grant to AirJaldi in 2016 and invested in the company in 2018 to fund expansion plans.

In addition to monetary support, the partnership has brought guidance on network technologies and deployment planning, Ginguld says.

AirJaldi buys bandwidth from the big telecommunication companies in India, interconnects to the existing infrastructure, and extends its network into under-covered or uncovered areas, utilizing Microsoft’s Airband technology.

Today, AirJaldi offers connectivity to more than 1,500 villages and 240,000 registered users and beneficiaries residing in eight states across the country.

“AirJaldi became the first internet service provider worldwide to operate entirely in the cloud, using Microsoft’s Azure,” Connolly adds.

An AirJaldi relay in a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. With daily electricity blackouts common in the regions it operates, AirJaldi’s network operation centers and relays use solar power and battery backups to ensure uninterrupted service. (Photo: Tenzin Gompo/AirJaldi)

Among the first to be connected was Dharamshala, a town in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, which is known as the center of the Tibetan community in India. We interviewed Ginguld, who stays there with his family, via a Microsoft Teams call on a AirJaldi connection.

Moving AirJaldi’s infrastructure to the cloud has been a gamechanger, according to Ginguld, allowing for the supply of more services to customers, including entertainment and the Internet of Things (IoT.)

“For us, increasingly, the idea is to turn our reach into a meaningful reach. That includes not least technical support on running the equipment, but also advise on how to harness it for the growth of local businesses,” he says.

Education is also benefiting, according to Mumtaz Alam, an AirJaldi regional manager for the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in central India.

He recalls how the government had given computers to many schools and colleges in the region. “But the staff, not familiar with these, had not even plugged in the machines,” he says. “In such cases, we started by teaching people how to use computers, routers, and other peripheral equipment.”

Things have progressed since then.

In the early weeks of a national pandemic lockdown last year, students in the Government Tribal Boys’ Hostel in Paratwada, near Churni, used broadband to access lessons remotely. This would have not been possible but for AirJaldi’s network, according to its warden Sadanand Seshrao Chourpagar.

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