Catherine Cheney :
Work on a white paper called "Internet for All: An Investment Framework for Digital Adoption" began with a question:
"You've shown us a very nice framework, but how much is this going to cost?"
The question came from a minister of information and communications technology at an event in Kigali, Rwanda, last year in response to a presentation on four barriers to global internet access: Limited infrastructure; lack of affordability; poor digital skills and awareness; and an absence of relevant online content.
The World Economic Forum, which brings partners together to take on global challenges including internet access, drew on its work to close the digital divide in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan to build a model to help government and business leaders understand how they can contribute to the estimated $450 billion that will be needed to connect the next 1.5 billion people to the internet.
The paper was just one of the many discussions and publications this year that focused on how to extend affordable internet access to the 60 percent of the world's population who remain unconnected.
Devex takes a look at some of the key ideas that have emerged.
No 'one size fits all' solution
"Our timelines are starting to move up in how we can do more for the world sooner," said Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at X, after rollerblading into place for his presentation at the experimental lab on the Google campus in Mountain View, California. Earlier this year, Devex visited X to get a close up view of Project Loon, which aims to use high-altitude, wind-propelled balloons to deliver internet connectivity to rural and remote populations. The group announced a shift in approach after investments in key technologies allowed them to send smaller groups of balloons to form clusters over concentrated areas, rather than having massive fleets of balloons take turns as they move around the world.
More recently, Project Loon has delivered connectivity to Puerto Rico, where competitors are coming together as collaborators following Hurricane Maria.
"There's no magical solution, one solution, either in respect to technology or business that you can use to serve all of the earth's problems in connectivity," said Marian Croak, vice president of access strategy and emerging markets at Google, at New America's The Next Three Billion event in Washington, D.C., in February.
She presented a slide outlining different technologies for different population densities, such as terrestrial wireless for high-density populations, and aerial wireless for low-density populations.
When Bob Pepper, head of global connectivity policy and planning at Facebook, took the stage, he joked that he could have switched presentations with Croak, given the many issues they agreed on, including how there is no "one size fits all" solution to the challenge of global connectivity.
"All of us have a shared goal of seeing internet access become more ubiquitous, lower cost, and more robust," Paul Garnett, director of the Affordable Access Initiative at Microsoft, told Devex in an extensive interview. "But at the end of the day, we are competitors in the marketplace, and that's a good thing."
New business models
As part of a series on China's expanding role in aid and development, Devex reported on Huawei, an information and communications technology company headquartered in Shenzen, China, that is pioneering new models to provide access in rural areas.
In its 2017 Global Connectivity Index, Huawei makes three recommendations for digital transformation planning, which provide insight into its own approach to bringing ICT to emerging markets. The first is to focus on ICT policies that will incentivize digital transformation; the second is to consider more industry-friendly policies to promote digital transformation; and the third is to collaborate with others to ensure there is education for building digital access and skills. Forums such as the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development allow Huawei to collaborate with other organizations in the global internet access space, said Adam Lane, senior director of public affairs.
Huawei tends to follow the old paradigm, in which a mobile network operator invests in a spectrum license and large-scale infrastructure. But the most exciting innovations in last mile connectivity are a combination of increasingly reliable low-cost hardware with emerging business models that can make these products profitable, said Troy Etulain, director of FHI 360's Digital Development Unit. Etulain is also project director of the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project, a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development supporting interventions for mobile money, internet access, and data collection.
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New business models are disrupting the traditional models of mobile network operators, which face challenges including growing demand for video streaming. Leaders from the industry gathered at Facebook's Telecom Infra Project conference in November for a conversation that centered on how they must disrupt or be disrupted, where Facebook and Telefonica announced a partnership to tackle the digital divide in Latin America. Programs such as the Connected Society Program, an initiative of GSMA funded by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, are driving further innovation and partnerships to expand the adoption of mobile internet.
Turning calls to action into results
While technology is global, policy is local, said Deepak Maheshwari, a government affairs director at Symantec and global vice chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, at the opening of IEEE's "Internet Inclusion: Advancing Solutions" event in Washington, D.C., in October.
"The key to any country's internet growth, and vibrant internet ecosystem, and capability of standing on its own feet, is strong local technical expertise."
The group was divided into seven working groups that again attempted to capture the key barriers for digital inclusion: Connectivity and energy; community networks; digital gender divide; digital literacy; evidence-based research; new models for financing connectivity; and public access.
"Once you lay the fiber, light it up, and build a tower, what are the local solutions that actually lead to people coming online?" asked Jochai Ben-Avie, senior global policy manager at the Mozilla Foundation. "How do we innovate around that?"
Mozilla is among the organizations that has launched competitions, or funded startups,
in order to support more locally-developed solutions to last mile connectivity challenges. Network expansion by most internet service providers and mobile network operators tend to leave rural and remote communities out, said John Garrity senior connectivity adviser at USAID, in a report on the event. Programs such as Microsoft's Affordable Access Initiative Grant Fund, launched in 2015 to accelerate the growth of businesses focused on closing the digital divide, aim to help these entrepreneurs scale their startups to meet the scope of the challenge.
"The key to any country's internet growth, and vibrant internet ecosystem, and capability of standing on its own feet, is strong local technical expertise," Steven Huter, director of the Network Startup Resource Center, told Devex earlier this year. "When the model is 'can we do this with drones and laser beams and external connectivity of some sort and drop in what they need,' I always feel that's an incomplete solution. It doesn't address how, at the end of day, the countries that have fared the best are those that have developed their own critical mass of locals in their countries who are a part of building their internet ecosystem."
Throughout the year, events from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to Global Goals Week in New York City demonstrated a growing awareness of how internet access underpins the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A report called Connecting the Next Four Billion captures how the global development community can turn high-level calls for action into on-the-ground results through development projects and national agendas. SSG Advisors, which put the report together, recommended that connectivity become a core part of every development project; that governments, technology companies, and investors work together to identify and scale promising connectivity businesses; and that all relevant stakeholders continue to discuss project successes and failures.
"It's not all about infrastructure," said Eric White, project lead for Internet for All at WEF, which organized a panel at WEF's Sustainable Development Impact Summit and is gearing up for a community meeting during Davos next year.
"That can get lost because when people focus on new ways of getting people online they think of infrastructure: Google, Facebook, OneWeb," he said, explaining that while he hopes these initiatives succeed, there are other issues that stand in the way of internet for all. "Smartphone pricing is a huge issue … Digital skills are a huge issue … So is content. There's more to it than just infrastructure, and I do think people are starting to wake up to that."
(Catherine Cheney is the West Coast correspondent for Devex. Based in San Francisco, she focuses on technology and innovation, emerging actors, and effective approaches in global health and international development).