The Questions Surrounding Global Internet Access

Will global internet access be the next big step in progress for the least developed countries? Is its construction only motivated by the lucrative idea of creating 4 billion new internet subscribers and consumers? What will be the Personal Digital Device (PDD) that people will use to connect to the internet? Is the creation of global internet access an altruistic endeavor to make the world a better place by eliminating the chance of a “digital divide” or a monopolistic power play for control? Is free internet a blatant disregard for the laws of net neutrality?

These questions will have answers of consequence; we are talking about “Billions” of people here. And as the big players of Silicon Valley iron out their master plans, those answers will become forthright sooner than you think. Just in the past year, Mark Zuckerberg has addressed the UN’s global panel twice requesting that they make universal internet access a priority, with an accomplishment date of 2020. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has filed a plan with the FCC to shoot 4,000 satellites into low earth orbit while Greg Wyler’s OneWeb wants to send up 700 satellites. Adding to the crowd, Google has a balloon idea floating around somewhere in the stratosphere. All these initiatives have one goal in mind: bring internet access to the masses.

So, let’s start by answering the first question: Will global internet access be the next big step in progress for the least developed countries? Of course it will. The internet edifies, helps spotlight inequality, increases literacy rates, and creates jobs, all of which provide socioeconomic stability. Consequentially, however, the benefits of global internet access are hindered by the fact that internet (data plans) aren’t free, and most plans (and devices: more on this later) sit outside the reaches of citizens from the least developed countries. Zuckerberg has announced a plan for free limited internet access through the app Free Basics, which naturally will direct users to Facebook and a few other sites. This free internet app lets users, who can’t afford data plans, access services that can diagnose medical problems, check the weather, provide study tools, and even get agricultural tips. Global internet access “free or not” is a running-long-jump-step forward in progress. But access is not data. And there will need to be other steps taken, maybe by companies wanting to sell products and services to the rest of the world. Some have opined that, instead of advertising to this target, defraying or eliminating the cost of data could generate much more product loyalty.

Second Question: Is the construction of global internet access motivated by the lucrative idea of creating 4 billion new internet subscribers and consumers? Well, they were already consumers, just not globally connected. Humans are—to begin with—already consumers by nature and the benefits of being connected will lie on both sides of the fence, monetarily and socially. A recent Deloitte study found that by expanding internet access in developing countries to levels seen today in developed economies, productivity could be increased as much as 25 percent, generating $2.2 trillion in GDP and more than 140 million new jobs, lifting 160 million people out of poverty. A second study by Deloitte on Africa stated that the economy is due to grow by around 50% in the next six years, double the rate of advanced economies. And by 2017, Africa is expected to become the second largest market for investments by European consumers business. Systemically, one of the things to come out of this growth will be the increase in mobile subscription rates. It is predicted that 97% of Africa’s population will have one by 2017 with 30% having a smartphone connection.

Third Question: What will be the PDD that people will use to connect to the internet? Numerous companies have created inexpensive versions of smartphones: from Mozilla’s $25 prototype, to the Huawei & Safaricom $80 version, to the Microsoft Nokia X priced at $130. Keeping those prices in mind, we must take into account that 71% of the world’s population is estimated to live on $10 dollars a day, in some cases, countries with poverty lines below $2 dollars a day. Are smartphones the right choice or the most functionally sound for the task at hand in a world where most of the communication is texting or Chat/VOIP, not voice according to studies done by Informate Mobile Intelligence? Take for instance the iPod Touch, which has all the functions of a smartphone minus the phone (but still with Skype, Facetime, and other live talking app options) and is sold at a third of the cost. The new 6th generation iPod touch retails for $200 compared to $650 for the latest Apple 6 smartphone. Why can’t we create a $10 “inexpensive-generation” iPod touch? Or even tablets, which are also less expensive to make than smartphones? It is time to rethink the actual needs of the people we are bringing global internet access to and then build the specifications for their optimal device. As I reported in a previous article, the majority of time spent on smartphones, at least in the US, isn’t actually being spent using them as phones.

Fourth Question: Is the creation of global internet access an altruistic endeavor or a monopolistic power play for control? Elon Musk, without a doubt, revels in the idea of creating a global telecommunications company that competes with Comcast and Verizon. This undeniably, in the Manufactured Consent definition, means control. From inside Zuckerberg’s mind, the opportunity to direct billions to Facebook can’t be overlooked. But what’s the other option? Who is out there that can and will come forward purely and altruistically to foot the bill: Should Zuckerberg’s app direct people to Myspace? Would that be more altruistic? What about Google and Apple in this?

Fifth Question: Is free internet a blatant disregard for the laws of net neutrality? Net Neutrality, coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu, “is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.” In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg said “net-neutrality principles are relevant for price discrimination, but not necessarily for Internet access.” There is a huge digital divide that’s looming over the planet! But, just because someone or some company is offering to provide the infrastructure to eliminate it, does not give them the right to own communications for future generations.

Global internet access is an important thing to accomplish and the sooner the better. We also need to reconsider which device is going to be most applicable to the citizens of the least developed countries. Is it the smartphone, iPod, tablet, or something else entirely? The device—being the least talked about aspect—in the end, might be the most important part because its creation deals strictly with the needs of the people and no one else. As suggested above, let’s call it a Personal Digital Device. Give it all of the capability of an iPod Touch and let the software do the rest. The irony is that global access for billions might come down to a $10-20 dollar device we already know how to make!