BELLE MEAD, New Jersey — Low cost and reliable access to systems that allow for communications and exchange of information is often understated as a means to progressing society as a whole. The Internet has revolutionized and modernized our communications and how we share information in our society—there can hardly be an understatement of the effects of the Internet. Society’s ability to communicate almost instantly, and exchange information over huge distances to huge populations of people has changed everything from business to education and even the way people socialize.
Accepting that the Internet has caused massive innovation and provided, quite literally, the approximate sum of human knowledge in one place, it is then important to note that 4.4 billion people are still unable to access the Internet. That means that all the innovation and change the internet has prompted so far has only been caused by a fraction of the human population and conversely, only a fraction of Earth’s population has directly benefited from Internet usage. Many of those people are people who cannot afford Internet access or the electronics to use the Internet—some may not even be literate.
However, times are changing. As more of the impoverished become literate, electronics become cheaper and economic conditions continue to improve for many of the poor around the globe, there will be an increased demand and need for the Internet to be readily available to them. The poor and those without Internet already see indirect effects of the Internet on their lives, and benefit from this to some extent.
Governments, nonprofits and other institutions constantly use the Internet to improve operational costs and remove what used to be huge logistical barriers, such as organizing protests or sharing vital research. It follows that the more people connect to the Internet, the more the poor and those without access will be able to see indirect benefits, and eventually direct effects. Just as the Internet was a driver of economic growth and innovation for the currently Internet enhanced world, so too can the Internet change lives and the economic productivity of the 4.4 billion without Internet access.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has a plan to deliver wider access to the Internet through a new strategy. The current Internet relies primarily on a cumbersome infrastructure system made of wires and cables. Building up these systems requires vast sums of money and time as well as political capital that many regions of the world simply don’t have or cannot achieve in the immediate future. Elon Musk wants to bypass this entirely and create a new web that operates through a system of satellites orbiting close to the earth.
This new satellite system could deliver global access to reliable and high-speed Internet access at a low cost to all users. Musk now has competition, as a new firm called OneWeb has entered the scene and is competing to provide a very similar service. Indeed, even Facebook has been working to provide Internet to those who need it, with a plan that involves both satellites and solar-powered drones. Musk has attracted investors such as Google while OneWeb has seen interest from Virgin Group for funding.
The competition to provide Internet access is reaching new heights. This is a good sign for the future and increasing the power for the poor to access information that they could then use to better their own lives and enrich their knowledge and intellect.
Countries like the Ivory Coast and Myanmar have only 2.7 percent and 1.2 percent of their populations on the Internet, respectively. In countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States, the estimated percentage of the population that uses the Internet is around 86 percent. This difference is huge and is evidence of the enormous strides that must be made in the coming years to help developing countries as a whole.
The OECD approximated that based on a recent Egyptian Internet outage, it found that if this continued for a whole year, the loss of the internet would have accounted for lost revenues or economic activity equal to around three to four percent of GDP. This figure does not even account for the wider economic effects that would ensue. The economic power of the Internet is strong, and can have substantial positive impact if it becomes more deeply imbedded in the fabrics of developing countries, rather than being a rarity. If countries like the Ivory Coast and Myanmar can increase their access to Internet, these entire populations could see the benefits of the Internet in their own regional economies, further helping the poor by helping the country’s overall economic well-being.
If Musk’s previous track record for creating success from seemingly impossible ventures (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity) says anything, there may soon be a day in which a network of 700 or more micro-satellites manufactured by SpaceX are 22,000 miles above people’s heads and providing global Internet access. For now, however, Musk’s Internet Satellites project is still in need of a proper name.
– Martin Yim