Economic Growth

How we achieve universal internet?

Holly Hickman
Writer, GE Look Ahead
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The Internet may seem like a given, but for 60% of the world’s population it has yet to become a reality. With such a large customer base waiting to log in, it is no wonder that companies are working hard on ways to deliver connectivity.

In developed countries, existing Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast in the US, are extending their networks to provide access in rural areas. Others, such as Google and Microsoft, are trying to ditch third-party ISPs altogether by providing broadband themselves. They do so by tapping television channel “white spaces”, which are unused frequencies cleared for use by unlicensed ISPs. Last month, British telecom regulator Ofcom approved the technology’s use in the UK.

Laying cable or exploiting the television spectrum isn’t as feasible an option in the developing world, however: Two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans (and 30% of South Asians) still lack access to electricity. Then there’s the issue of reach: In 2012, 341m people in sub-Saharan Africa lived beyond a 50km range of a terrestrial fibre-optic network.

Internet via mobile phone is a more attractive option. In Nigeria, for example, it is three times cheaper than fixed-line broadband. No wonder then that the sector saw a double-digit growth in 2014, with Africa leading the way: Market penetration on the continent is now at 20%, from just 2% in 2010. But while plans are cheap, smartphones still represent a heavy investment for many—up to 80% of the annual average take-home pay in countries like Ethiopia, according to McKinsey.

Accordingly, other options are needed. Google, Facebook and even SpaceX all are making forays into balloon-, drone- and satellite-based connectivity. Google’s Loon program, for example, aims to deploy thousands of balloons at altitudes of 20km to deliver the Internet from the stratosphere. The company is currently working on a pilot programme in India, where Internet penetration is estimated at 25%; it hopes to reach the commercial stage by 2016.

Google and Fidelity also invested a reported $1bn in Elon Musk’s SpaceX earlier this year. SpaceX recently announced a $10bn plan to build out a micro-satellite-based Internet network. The micro-satellites would orbit the Earth at just 750 miles above the planet, far lower than the 22,000 miles of a typical satellite orbit.

Meanwhile, Facebook is testing solar-powered drones that can act as relays between satellites and users. One human operator could control 100 such drones, each the size of a commercial airliner, which potentially could fly for five years without need for maintenance.

The above approaches would enable tech companies to cut out the middlemen and gain direct access to their customers. If early tests confirm the hopes of the founders of each of these projects, they could also provide low-cost, universal Internet access to billions of people.

And talk about universal coverage: Musk has said that his plan would also lay the foundation for Internet on Mars.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel.

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