The internet is the best tool we have for economic development – but many people simply can’t access it
Access to the internet is a must for full participation in today’s global economy. However, although worldwide connection rates have grown steadily over the past few years, many people in developing countries still have limited – or no regular access to the internet. Africa in particular is an internet black spot, with only 25 per cent of adults reporting occasional internet use in 2015. With a strong correlation between high GDP per capita and high levels of internet access, many organisations are trying to improve connectivity to those with lower incomes – but it’s also important in the developed world. Here are five projects supporting worldwide internet access.
In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org. Their Free Basics product provides free mobile internet to users in developing countries in partnership with local mobile network operators. With Free Basics, users can browse a small selection of websites offering news, health, local information – and unsurprisingly, Facebook – for free. While the organisation credits itself with bringing more than 100 million people online, restrictions on the kind of content users can access has garnered huge criticism for the Free Basics programme. Sceptics have likened Facebook’s reach into developing markets as ‘digital colonialism’, and India banned Free Basics for violating net neutrality rules. Along with the mobile powered outreach of Free Basics, Facebook also explores more technological means for getting people online. The Connectivity Lab at Facebook is looking at concepts such as high altitude planes, lasers and satellites to help achieve the goal of improved connectivity.
2) Project Loon
The aim of Google run Project Loon is to create a network of stratospheric balloons, bringing internet connectivity to rural and remote locations all over the world. Solar powered Loon balloons fly 20km up in the Earth’s atmosphere, using antennae to transmit connectivity from ground stations, across the network of balloons, and into a user’s phone. This enables Project Loon to expand the reach of mobile networks, strengthen existing coverage, and provide emergency internet access in the wake of natural disasters. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the Loon team provided emergency connectivity to over 200,000 people on the island whilst existing mobile networks were being repaired.
3) Undersea cables
Much of the world’s global communications are facilitated by undersea cables, and internet data is no different. According to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, 97 per cent of inter continental internet traffic is carried by submarine cables, as they are cheaper and more reliable than other options such as satellites. Unlike national infrastructure networks such as water and electricity systems, undersea internet connections have mostly been established by private enterprises. In 2016, Microsoft and Facebook jointly designed the MAREA cable connecting the US to Southern Europe, which was improved to a capacity of 200 Terabytes per second in October 2018. Similarly, Google and a consortium of other internet companies own the FASTER cable, which connects the US to Japan and Taiwan. Undersea fibre optic cables might be a relatively cost effective way of creating internet infrastructure, but they are vulnerable. Fears have grown that cables might be cut by hostile forces, while anchors, construction projects and even sealife can damage cables by accident.
Satellites are an ideal way of supplying communications and internet connectivity, as they remove geographical boundaries from the equation. This makes them a great solution to the problem of widening internet access across the world, with one small proviso: they are very expensive. In the past few years, several companies have entered the satellite internet space, with SpaceX perhaps the most well known. SpaceX’s Starlink is a project to deploy thousands of low cost, high performance satellites for the creation of a global broadband internet system. Two test satellites were successfully launched in 2018. Interestingly, in the same week the creation of Starlink was announced back in 2015, Virgin owner Richard Branson publicised his investment in OneWeb, a similar satellite internet venture. Competition also comes in the form of Facebook, who declared in July 2018 that they are pursuing an in house satellite, Athena, for the provision of broadband.
Many people live in areas with good internet connectivity but simply can’t afford to pay for it. This is the premise behind Jana, a US based company which wants to make the internet free. In stark contrast to Facebook’s controversial Free Basics product, Jana users have no limits to their use of internet data. Instead, the business leverages advertising to offset the cost of data. As of 2016, Jana had provided 4.5 billion megabytes of data to its users, across 40 emerging markets. The business opportunity for advertisers here is clear: by 2020, there are expected to be 5.5 billion consumers in emerging markets, with a combined annual consumption of $24t. Providing mobile internet to potential future consumers is an ideal way for companies to tap into this growth. The greater connectivity of the internet will also help to ensure that such significant levels of growth are achieved.
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