• Program aims to advance public good, solve biggest problems
  • Company will also invest in Internet in developing nations

Microsoft Corp. will donate cloud services worth more than $1 billion to nonprofit groups over the next three years in a bid to "advance the public good" and help solve some of the world’s toughest problems, President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said.

The largest part of the funds will provide free or discounted cloud services, such as Azure computing power and data storage, Office 365 Internet-based corporate programs and other products to nonprofit groups worldwide. Other donations will include expanding access to free Azure for universities, and a program that will invest in organizations providing Internet connectivity in the developing world. Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, who is attending the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, will announce the donation in a column Wednesday in the Financial Times.

Nadella is trying to boost the usage of Microsoft’s products and expand its cloud services businesses amid rising competition. The company, which revamped its charity efforts under the name Microsoft Philanthropies last month, recognizes that the paid market for software doesn’t reach all users, requiring donations and investments to expand its reach. Academia also remains a key segment for getting software and tools into the hands of students and educators, yet it’s an area that in some regions is dominated by Microsoft rivals like Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.

"The most fundamental way we advance our mission is through technology that reaches people through the market," Smith said in an interview. "But the market does not reach everyone. Part of the history of the company through Bill Gates and the influence of Bill’s mom with her work at the United Way was to make sure our technology was reaching everybody." Company co-founder Bill Gates’ mother, Mary Gates, was the first woman to lead the national board of that charity.

Spurred by global leaders’ adoption last year of sustainable development goals, including ending poverty and hunger and ensuring affordable energy, Microsoft said the scale and computational power enabled by cloud computing will help find solutions to these seemingly unsolvable problems.

In the first part of the new Microsoft program, the company aims to serve 70,000 nonprofit organizations over the three-year period. The plan to increase Azure’s use at research universities will represent a 50 percent expansion of an existing program that already covers 600 institutions.

The third program will be a collaboration between Microsoft’s new philanthropic arm and its business development unit and will particularly make investments in using empty television airwaves to provide Internet connectivity. Microsoft already has funded a Kenyan outfit called Mawingu, Swahili for cloud, which is bringing Internet to schools and local entrepreneurs in an area where most don’t have electricity -- Nadella visitedKenya to see this effort at work in July to mark the release of Windows 10. The goal of the new program is to make 20 investments in 15 countries, Smith said.

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