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With Global Digital Divide Growing, Beamlink Focuses on Infrastructure
What would your life be like without internet access? For over half of households across the globe, this is a reality faced daily. According to the United Nations, 2.9 billion people have never been online at all. But this doesn’t even account for the billions of people who only have internet access in one part of their lives, like at school or work, but not at home. On top of that, these access gaps follow a number of other equity gaps: In the least resourced areas, for every three men online, only two women are online.
The digital access gap is only widening, as increasingly, proposed solutions to problems like healthcare access or job training rely on internet access. It's for this reason that USC Marshall School of Business graduate student Mateo Abascal and the company he co-founded, Beamlink, is focusing on the basics: internet access for all.
Abascal, who graduated from the USC Marshall MASTER OF SCIENCE IN SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP (MSSE) program in May 2023, said: “I’m motivated by contributing to the social entrepreneurial world and, I believe internet is the most immediately valuable way to do that. So many solutions are coming out right now that are internet connected solutions and if we don’t have internet everywhere, then the people who need those solutions won’t have access to them.”
Beamlink LAUNCHED IN 2017 in response to the infrastructure crisis demonstrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The team designed their product—the bentocell aka. a cell tower the size of a lunchbox that can mesh together to build broader coverage for an area—to allow for internet access in cities ravaged by natural disasters.
Since then, Beamlink has made a slight pivot. “We realized that disasters are exacerbating problems that already exist,” Abascal said. “While the lack of Internet infrastructure is more obvious when it’s been ripped away, rural, indigenous, and disaster prone communities all face the same issue: no one designs infrastructure for use outside of big cities. That’s what we’ve done here – design the perfect infrastructure for this half of the world.”
In pursuing the goal of equitable access, Beamlink has spent years iterating on its product design, making it more user-friendly, compact and cost-effective. Abascal says the team aims to reduce the cost of each bentocell by half and offer a solution that is intuitive to use, meaning no training is required. “Training is one of the bigger issues right now when you want to set up a cell tower. But you can give our product to anyone and have them turn it on and connect,” Abascal said.
From awards like the National Science Foundation’s SBIR PROGRAM, which provided over $250K mostly for R&D, the MIN FAMILY SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP CHALLENGE and the USC Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab’s Social Venture Coaching Competition in 2022, the company created its pilot model and began live testing. With continued fundraising and product tweaks, Beamlink hopes to head into phase I production this summer.
From Fossils to 4G
When Abascal was in high school, he founded his first organization—one he would now classify as a social enterprise, though at the time, social entrepreneurship wasn’t in his vocabulary. “You were either a business for profit or a non-profit. There was nothing in between,” he said.
The organization aimed at making donations to homeless shelters more efficient, for example, evening out food donations between well-known shelters that received an excess of items and lesser-known spaces that received inadequate support. He and his teammates won the grand prize at Hack for LA, a civic hackathon, but he still wasn’t convinced he could make a career building impactful technologies.
Since he wasn’t sold on entrepreneurship just yet, he focused on his core passions: archaeology, math, and physics. It wasn’t until co-founder Kovesdy pitched the idea for Beamlink in 2018, while Abascal was studying at Johns Hopkins University, that he considered a career in humanitarian technology.
Beamlink began as a side project, but by the time Abascal graduated Johns Hopkins, Beamlink began taking off. After winning the NSF grant, Abascal began to explore his options, a journey that led him to the MSSE program.
The Biggest Picture
In the MSSE program, Abascal embraced new perspectives and broadened his strategic toolbox. “When you learn by doing,” he said, “You develop your own way of doing things. But it’s useful to understand the rule book and how the one I’ve developed is different. The program has been really helpful in teaching me that there are other, usually easier, ways to accomplish the same goal.”
At the same time, he said, it’s the people at MSSE that stick out to him the most. “The program has a mix of people that is really interesting. If it wasn’t for the program I wouldn’t have been able to make all these incredible connections. It’s opened a lot of doors in broadening the type of people I end up in the room with,” he said.
For Abascal, Beamlink is just one way for him to address an issue that’s important to him.
He added: "We take Internet for granted, we expect it to be there, and we’ve completely forgotten what life is like without it. It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to remind us how important it is.”
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