We are undoubtedly in the age of the internet yet still internet access is not available to two-thirds of the global population. Many developing countries within Africa lack connectivity, resulting in serious implications for the quality of public education and sexual equality in rural communities (as just two examples). However, these communities may benefit from initiatives being piloted by two of the biggest names in the tech industry: Facebook and Google. Both companies are competing intensely to bring users from the developing world online.
For example, Project Loon is an eccentric project that Google is spearheading, which uses a network of balloons that travel through the stratosphere. Each of the many layers in the stratosphere, vary in speed and direction. Loon balloons rise and descend into wind layers traveling in the needed direction. With special internet antennae attached to buildings, people could ideally connect to the network of a balloon. Signals bounce from antennae, to the network, to the internet. The first trials were started in New Zealand in June of 2013, and Google has been continuously refining its methods over the course of the past year.
Google’s initiative wasn’t met without skepticism, however. One vocal critic has been Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook who is developing his own program to increase internet availability in rural areas. In May of this year, Zuckerberg said that satellites and lasers will also be used to achieve the dream of making the internet available to everyone worldwide. Zuckerberg’s initiative, Internet.org, was launched last year as well.
The project is an extension of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab. Skilled technicians are developing lasers, satellites, high-altitude, long-endurance planes and other crucial pieces of technology involved in internet connectivity systems. Three million people, from Paraguay and the Philippines, have already been given first time Internet access with the help of the project.
While there’s still uncertainty about the long-term viability of programs like Project Loon, what is encouraging is that if measures like this do prove to be pragmatic, they will ultimately make everything more affordable for Africans living in impoverished communities. Historically, the only option has been satellite internet service through HughesNet plans – something well out of the price range of most African families living in rural areas.
Of course, it would be foolish to think that the tech giants are pursuing these projects with solely altruistic motivations. Google and Facebook have a financial stake in the expansion in developing countries. Tech companies have nearly reached US market saturation, so Africa offers an opportunity to attract new users whose data and consumerism will be useful to advertisers. Regardless, what these programs could offer in benefits to Africans themselves far outweighs any negatives.
Sub-Saharan Africa, with so many of its residents struggling against abject poverty, could benefit the most. For these countries, the internet is unaffordable for the general populace. Two billion people live on the equivalent of $2 in US currency per day, and while the cost of the internet there may only be 40 cents, that amount is roughly 20 percent of the majority’s income.
Sub-Saharan Africa is not alone in this issue; in many countries the cost of internet is 80 to 100 percent of income. And while The United Nation Broadband Commission has set a goal to have access to entry-level broadband be at most five percent of daily income, tech giants in the private sector (like Google and Facebook) might actually be in the best position set and achieve those benchmarks.
And for all of the improvements that are so urgently needed, there is a beacon of hope. Morocco, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya are all African countries that lead the developing world’s internet affordability. With innovative technology intertwined with forward-looking policies, and a regulatory environment that stimulates supply and demand, rapid progress can be made.