NEW YORK, New York – With renewed rhetoric concerning the unavailability of wireless internet in the developing world, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prompted the Broadband Commission to put more energy into seeking feasible methods by which to bring comparable Internet to the nearly two-thirds of the population in those countries. The Broadband Commission, a U.N. organization charged with collecting data about the “Digital Divide,” was ostensibly not alone in listening to the Secretary-General’s words. Google, Microsoft, and even the FCC are aware of the problems in infrastructure and distribution, which are holding much of the world back from the potential informational revolution to which the Internet is so conducive.
The Federal Communications Commission in February of 2013 put forth a proposal to bring nationalized Wi-fi service to metropolitan and rural areas around the USA for free. Google and Microsoft declared their support for the proposal. Google then went further in May, proposing Project Loon, which would bring wireless Internet networks to emerging markets through the use of balloons. If successful, the project would be not only the first of its kind, but a major development victory for Google.
Google has been criticized before for its tendency to leave such grandiose projects incomplete. Bill Gates, who stands among those who have raised such points, also stated that Project Loon is a solution to a superfluous problem. Preferring to see Google spend the capital on more immediate problems, like malaria, Gates suggested that Google has an ulterior motive: providing more people with access to its product.
While this is undoubtedly true, Gates’ critique is ultimately irrelevant itself. If Google can connect rural and poverty-stricken regions of Africa and Asia to the rest of the world, bringing them education and business opportunities, it seems only fair that their already ubiquitous product be among those to profit. It is not a conflict of interests if the effect of the action is what is measured.
The debate is ultimately a bit premature, as Google has yet to solidify any plans, and there aren’t any feasible alternatives. Mr. Ban’s rhetoric and the Broadband Commission’s numbers aside, telecommunications companies seem simply unwilling to risk the capital required to set up traditional infrastructure in those parts of the world.
However, if the FCC proposal carries through, a change in thinking may be imminent. By putting forward a nationalized product, the US government will spur telecomm companies to innovate their products, which remain lackluster in practice. That innovation may be exactly what is needed to create products more amenable to the less-established infrastructure available in the developing world. Furthermore, the effects of free, nationwide Internet – such as technological, scientific, and ideological innovation, as well as economic growth – could provide a case study off which other groups could base their decisions on whether or not to introduce Wi-fi to the developing world.
Gates is correct to raise the point that these kinds of plans will not directly fix much of anything; people will still starve and die of malaria. But unless those people are given a way to communicate directly with the affluent demographics which could aid them, they will continue to suffer and die invisibly. Unless information is made accessible, ignorance will continue to breed. Without echoing the utopian refrain of the 1990s, bridging the Digital Divide is one crucial step in a multi-faceted plan to end poverty, and it is one which NGOs are simply too poorly equipped to take. Major corporations, like Google, and the government organizations, like the FCC, will have to risk failure by making the first move. Yet, if they persevere, history will no doubt remember them kindly.
– Alex Pusateri