MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Corporations hold the power to expand Internet access to developing countries. Facebook and six mobile phone companies recently collaborated on Internet.org, an initiative aiming to reach the remaining two-thirds of people without access to the web.
This translates to an estimated five billion people offline. The Internet can stimulate the economies of developing countries. Facebook and other corporations partnered to expand access to free online education, such as Khan Academy and Codecademy. This expansion allows for increased opportunity to participate in the modern knowledge-based economy.
The Internet also connects patients in developing countries to highly trained doctors in wealthier regions. In addition to improving health, the Web holds the potential to increase food security. Farmers can access relevant crop data to help increase their yields. Infrastructure stands as the largest obstacle to internet expansion. Deserts and remote villages across Africa are incompatible with traditional delivery methods, according to Internet service providers.
To combat this, both Google and Facebook engineered plans to deliver internet access to new areas. Google aims to create a global network of balloons. These balloons send data to the ground wirelessly, reaching once-neglected regions. Facebook also announced plans to acquire Titan Aerospace, a drone manufacturer. This company builds solar powered, unmanned aerial vehicles- another wireless solution to the digital divide.
Project Loon, introduced by Google, has already undergone significant development and testing. The balloons will float over 20 kilometers in the sky, communicating with each other wirelessly. Though innovative, this project is limited by wind interference. In the stratosphere, wind generally travels west to east. Google plans to protect against wind by building a web of balloons spanning across the globe. When one balloon leaves an area, another approaches to replace it. A balloon providing Internet access in Argentina one week could travel to South Africa the next. On these journeys, balloons collect location data to better predict wind behavior.
The balloons link to an Internet transmission unit on the ground. This unit connects to a local Internet provider, passing data through the network of balloons and into households equipped with a special antenna.
Google has not released information on the cost of this operation. Targeting developing countries requires a cost-effective approach. Both Facebook and Google plan to provide services free of charge to individuals in need.
Google also partnered with mobile phone providers in Nigeria and the Philippines, aiming to establish a “Free Zone.” This project will allow users without data plans to access Google services. Apple, Nokia and other mobile phone manufactures continue to improve low-end smartphones for consumers in developing countries. On these mobile networks, individuals could utilize such a zone.
When the fields of development and technology converge more people can participate in the global economy. The coming projects from Facebook and Google may signify the peak of corporate social responsibility. As these local economies mature, the global playing field levels and consumers in developing countries gain more spending power.
– Ellery Spahr
Sources: Google, The Verge, New Scientist