WIN the Digital Divide

Filipino Start-Up Gets Brands to Sponsor Wi-Fi

With about 4 billion people in the world still not connected to the Internet, it will take some innovative approaches to bring these people online.

This brings us to Wi-Fi Interactive Network (WIN), a start-up in the Philippines that has come up with a novel way to bring data connectivity to consumers. WIN is working with consumer brands to sponsor the costs of installing and maintaining Wi-Fi hot spots at neighbourhood convenience stores, restaurants and bars. Shoppers are given hot spot access when purchasing a sponsor’s products. To access this sponsored connection, buyers register on their phone, the store approves the request and sends a unique passcode to the user’s phone.

In the Philippines, people buy consumer items in sachets or small disposable plastic packs for single use. Sachets are a common way of packaging products like detergents, shampoo, milk and coffee in emerging markets as they’re cheaper than bottles. For example, if a consumer purchases a sachet of a sponsoring brand’s shampoo, they can get Internet access for a certain amount of time — usually 30 minutes.

WIN currently has 41 Wi-Fi hot spots, many in rural areas, but connectivity is a hurdle in many parts of the country. The company is a recipient of Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative that aims to provide Internet access through grants and commercial partnerships.

Grant recipients are addressing various challenges, taking advantage of last-mile access technologies including TV white spaces. WIN will use these frequencies, which were originally placed between channels to prevent interference among them. Microsoft has developed software to detect channels that are available for use and is able to seamlessly route data use to another vacant space in case of interference. TV white space signals can travel up to 10 kilometres and penetrate thick walls, farther than the 600 feet for the usual Wi-Fi connection. The Philippine government successfully piloted the use of TV white spaces in 2013 to give connectivity during rescue and relief operations in the Bohol province when typhoon Haiyan hit the province.

Tech companies are increasingly making efforts to bring people online, though their approaches vary. Facebook and Google are experimenting with drones, balloon and micro satellites among other things. Microsoft is investing in TV white spaces and local solutions.

WIN is taking a unique approach as it has banded together makers of consumer goods to sponsor Internet access. Sponsors like the business model because it’s consistent with their target audience.

Zero-rating or toll-free data is nothing new and has been used by service providers and wireless operators in some markets for years. Facebook and Google have introduced sponsored data in several markets. WIN is developing another business model independent from popular Internet services or wireless carriers. By bringing what is essentially free data access to buyers, the firm is creating a WIN-win situation for consumers.