Can internet access go truly global?

Can internet access go truly global?

Founder, E-MAGINE
The work of tech giants will make internet globally available, but not necessarily accessible or affordable. Will their projects involve local communities and benefit them?

E-magine began in 2009/10 and is working locally to increase internet access in underserved areas. We have eight projects in four countries — Zambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Brazil — and are seeing great results that help to understand how people are adopting technology.

VP, Project Loon, Google
Two-thirds of the world’s population does not have internet. For those in rural or hard-to-reach areas, getting it is challenging.

Project Loon is a network of balloons which float in the stratosphere, twice as high as aeroplanes. By partnering with telecom companies we can reach much further out into rural and remote areas of a country in a cost-effective way. Our balloons can last over 100 days and travel over 17m km collectively. From one balloon we can now provide coverage to an area approximately the size of Rhode Island (4,000 sq km) — that’s four times larger than our previous coverage area.

By taking to the air, we can get rid of connectivity problems and provide internet to billions of people who don’t have it.

Assistant professor, Computer
Science department, University at Albany, New York
I hope that internet connection will become worldwide. However, I am not sure if we will ever reach the point where everyone has the same online experience. Rural residents are quick to realise how mobile phones, SMS and internet can benefit them. They no longer need to take unnecessary trips to the town, they can check what is a fair price to sell their crops, buy used cars from Japan and they can stay in touch through, say, Facebook. Rural residents use the internet much like those who live in cities.

Connectivity depends on infrastructure, which is concentrated in cities. So there is a need for alternative solutions. Academia and industry are making good progress in creating infrastructure-less cellular and areal networks, and using unused broadcasting frequencies (TV white space, also known as TVWS). Technological progress, however, is not the only factor for improved rural connectivity. Understanding of people’s needs along with favourable policy is crucial to achieving universal connectivity.

ICT in programme lead, Oxfam
The internet is a catalyst for the way people communicate, access information and gain opportunities. It is a concern that the digital divide pervades — giving voice to those who already have it, while disproportionately excluding the marginalised. Promisingly, many providers are seeing the opportunity to reach those who still do not have internet connectivity.

But focus needs to shift from accessibility to the meaningful use of the internet. Are local communities involved in generating content to make it useful for them? Are services suitable for the needs of specific groups such as women and do they tackle barriers such as illiteracy?
Oxfam is trying to use the internet to increase people’s access to meaningful information that can improve their opportunities and livelihoods. Internet Now! is running in 100 communities in Uganda. These are small computer centres that employ young people affected by conflict from the Lord’s Resistance Army, while giving them access to an agricultural commodity platform — information which is very valuable to their community.

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