Headline-grabbing attempts to beam the internet into parts of the world untouched by fixed-line and mobile networks – using low-orbit satellites, high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones – underscore both the ambition and the audacity of the world’s biggest technology companies.
Most people, however, are already living within reach of existing networks, but have yet to come online.
Bold experiments in the sky can obscure a more immediate but game-changing push to open up the internet to a larger still unconnected group of around three billion people.
“Almost 90% of the world’s population already lives within range of an existing cellular network,” wrote one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures – Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg – in a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal.
“For everyone in those areas, we don’t need to build completely new kinds of infrastructure to help them connect. We just need to show why it’s valuable and make it affordable.”
Today’s internet has largely evolved to meet the needs of a relatively affluent group of about 2.7 billion people.
Year-on-year growth in internet penetration has already dropped to single digits however, making global connectivity a distant proposition based on current levers of change.
To re-energize growth, tech companies have to develop services with very different lifestyles in mind.
Speaking at the Global Mobile Internet Conference earlier this year in Beijing, Facebook’s strategy and planning lead, Pat Wu, outlined three main barriers standing in the way.
is valuable, and make it affordable’
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
First is accessibility. With 3G networks yet to cover 50% of the global population, network capacity remains a major obstacle, but access to electricity is also important, so people can charge devices.
Language is another key obstacle. “There are many languages that can’t engage with the internet, because they don’t have fonts and keyboards to create content or even consume it,” he said.
The second obstacle is affordability. Few people are likely to go online at the expense of basic needs, such as food and water. For most people, the cost of devices as well as data access represents a major outlay.
Even if these first two barriers are overcome, companies still have to work hard on creating new services as well as marketing.
“A significant amount of people don’t know what the internet is, let alone why they should spend their hard-earned money to go online,” Wu said.
“A key part of that is building awareness of the internet, and making sure there are relevant content and services in local languages.”
Tech companies are already working with telcos to subsidize the costs of access in emerging markets, although finding a business model that suits both parties can be problematic.
Motivations for going online in the first place vary by market, Wu notes. Once online, usage and engagement can also be slow to pick up, if people don’t know many other internet users.
Better use of resources
Behind business negotiations lie key challenges for engineers. Telcos need to get the most out of existing 2G and 3G networks, as well as rolling out next-generation connectivity. Device-makers need to make phones and tablets more efficient as well as cheaper, so the cost of using them as well as buying them goes down.
Last year, Zuckerberg unveiled a new association called Internet.org to help accelerate progress in these areas, with tech representatives from across the internet value chain – Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung – also joining as founding members.
The partnership is designed to be loose so other companies can join in, on an ongoing basis or on specific projects. Earlier this year, Unilever teamed up with Internet.org to better understand internet access in rural India, for example.
Working with mobile operators is a good place to start, Wu said, but the association needs to look at other ways of working with a broader constellation of players to deliver more diverse services.
“We segment the needs based on population,” Wu said. “What is the pressing need? If they are close to the fiber network or there’s a signal, then it could be technology literacy or digital literacy. How do you solve that?
"It’s probably not going to be extending the internet the way we experience it in the developed world, or for people who are currently online.”
This article first appeared in Media Business Asia magazine, Q2 2014.