Global Internet Connectivity by 2020?

Earlier this week (October 5th) Facebook announced that they have partnered with Eutelsat to build a satellite that will allow more Africans to get online. The two companies have signed a multi-year agreement with Spacecom to provide satellite broadband access for large parts of West, East and Southern Africa. The service is set to start in the second half of 2016. Two years ago Facebook announced the launch of Internet.org, in an effort to accelerate the rate of connectivity in parts of the developing world. Chris Daniels, VP of Internet.org said “Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting people in Africa.”

This latest announcement was literally days after Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement to catalyse world leaders into prioritising universal internet access. Facebook have joined with international advocacy organisation ONE campaign and other organisations (including the Gates Foundation and Richard Branson) to set up a Connectivity Declaration.

It is not the first company to launch plans to connect the world with Elon Musk also planning to provide high-speed wifi via satellites and Google’s Project Loon which will release thousands of balloons into the stratosphere. Connecttheworld was also high on the agenda at the United Nation’s Global Goals. In a Facebook post Zuckerberg said “We also know that the internet is a vital enabler of jobs, growth and opportunity. And research tells us that for every 10 people connected to the internet, about 1 is lifted out of poverty.” I’m not sure where this research is?

The Declaration says “When people have access to the tools and knowledge of the internet, they have access to opportunities that make life better for all of us. The internet is critical to fighting injustice, sharing new ideas and helping entrepreneurs start jobs.” The sceptics would say that the reason that the likes of Facebook and Microsoft are supporting a global internet is so they can merely profit further. In fact, Zuckerberg had an incredibly busy week with world leaders, a couple of days after the UN event he hosted Indian prime minister Narendi Modi at Facebook Headquarters in California. Modi is a true advocate of the internet and apparently set up his Twitter and Facebook profiles long before he became Prime Minister – he now has millions of followers.

With a population in excess of 1.2 billion, India is a massive market for Facebook, and it is interesting that Zuckerberg has met Modi, particularly after recent criticism of Internet.org which has been accused of quashing Indian social networks.

The United Nation’s Broadband Commission new report The State of Broadband 2015 as a Foundation for Sustainable Development says that “The milestone of 4 billion Internet users is unlikely to be achieved before 2020. Future Internet users are likely to come from less well-educated, less urban backgrounds and from a base in other languages and dialects. Growth in the languages available online for some of the main web-based services is not keeping pace with growth in overall Internet usage.”

So it’s highly unlikely that Mark, Bill, Richard, Bono et al will get their dream of a global internet by 2020. One thing is for sure, the debate around their altruist versus capitalistic reasons for supporting a connected world will continue. As a techno-optimist I fully support global connectivity. Sure there are positives and negatives, but I feel the potential power of education, e-commerce, and mobilsation far outstrips the darker side of the net including cultural imperialism, corruption and crime.

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