man speaking to children

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.

“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.

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.

AirJaldi’s bouquet of internet connections—wireless, fixed fibre, and village hotspots—are powering rural administrative offices, institutions, commercial ventures, and private customers alike. By helping locals access the internet, the company ultimately expects to bring them closer to financial inclusion and reap other benefits that connectivity brings. 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.

Running networks in complex terrains requires people who are familiar with that region’s unique challenges. AirJaldi recognized this early on and has been training locals in the villages that it has connected.

“Getting somebody who has the technical skills, who is not from a rural area, to work in a rural area is both difficult and expensive. Instead, we opted to train, recruit, and retain people locally,” says Ginguld.

A sizable portion of AirJaldi’s 175-strong workforce was hired after completing a month-long course, signing up for which simply requires “intellectual curiosity and technical curiosity”. Some of the roughly 1,000 people trained by AirJaldi have gone on to find jobs with other firms.

Gender inclusion is big in the company’s plans too. One of its most successful trainees is Asha Kumari. The B-Tech graduate and young mother, manages a network on field—a rare phenomenon in her industry. On her suggestion, AirJaldi expanded into her hometown of Sahibganj, a semi-urban district in the state Jharkhand where previous connections would “work for two days a week and waver the rest of the time”.

In a society where women often give up their education to take care of the home, Kumari’s example has helped change some minds.

“When I first left my village to study in the city, people used to ask my family why they were allowing me to go,” she remembers. “Now that I have brought back internet with me, everyone agrees this was a good decision.”

Women currently make up about 10% of AirJaldi’s workforce, and two more of them have gone on to be field managers just like Kumari. AirJaldi and Microsoft have partnered with the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) and USAID to help women and women-led organizations in rural India to advance through access to internet.

With AirJaldi’s assistance, hospitals in the areas where it’s present have begun delivering telemedicine services—connecting local clinics with medical experts remotely, especially during the pandemic. Going forward, the company intends to nudge small and medium farmers to embrace precision agriculture solutions. There is also a move to use broadband to set up tools for monitoring air quality, water management, and earthquake early warning systems.

“This will help the farmer on the ground, the teacher in the school, and various government and public organizations to improve their planning and operations” says Ginguld. “It is going to be crucial for the upliftment of people in rural areas.”

Top image: The director of the Tonglen Institute for slum kids in Dharamshala meets with children in a slum day school, which has been connected by AirJaldi (Photo: Harnam Kids for Microsoft)

Ranjita Ganesan is a journalist and researcher based in Mumbai.