At 6:50 AM, I blearily open my eyes. Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” is playing softly near my pillow, kindly letting me know that it is time for my day to begin. I mindlessly grab my iPhone, shut off the alarm, and begin checking the notifications I had missed while asleep. I scroll through my roommate group messages to glean their plans for the day and relive the study struggles some had the night prior. I check Instagram and Snapchat to see how my night owl acquaintances have spent their past evenings, and marvel at sunrise snaps from the early risers. I switch over to my Gmail account and read theSkimm to get a quick glimpse of the state of global affairs before finally dragging myself out of bed for the day ahead.
Before 7:00 AM, I have gathered enough information to know what the day will loosely entail for my close friends, my local BC community, and even the country and globe as a whole. From what I have learned from personal experience, popular culture, and this class, my morning routine is far from unique for those with access to smartphones and the internet. This cultural obsession with digital connection, though undoubtedly immense, is perhaps surprisingly far from universal.
In terms of owning a smartphone or using the internet at least occasionally, there is a 33% gap between developed and developing nations (2015). In these developing areas, only 54% of inhabitants have access to a smartphone or use the internet. Once the smartphone element of this statistic is eliminated, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the developing world lack internet access. Despite this, digital presence in emerging markets is rapidly expanding.
Facebook, for example, launched the Internet.org project in August of 2013. The platform, available in 53 countries, aims to provide affordable internet access to the developing world. The application that delivers this service, dubbed Free Basics, gives users access to a number of selected sites and search engines, and of course, Facebook. Zuckerberg pioneered the project on the grounds that connectivity is essential to humanity.
“Connectivity is a basic human right” – Mark Zuckerberg, 2014
Despite this, Zuckerberg has received heat for Internet.org from critics in the past, who argue that the selectivity of the sites provided violates the net neutrality laws that Facebook fought so hard for in the United States. The critics do have some merit, as a 2015 poll found that 65% of Nigerians think “Facebook is the internet“. Despite this, Internet.org has still provided internet access to over one billion users, making Internet.org the largest initiative of its kind. Further, Free Basics provide users with just that: free access to basic websites. But after using the Free Basics platform, 50% of new users will pay for data after just a single month of exposure to internet access. Clearly, the benefits of digital connection outweigh the costs–even in the developing world.
Google, not one to be out-innovated, has additionally pioneered a project that aims to increase internet access across the globe. Developed by their Google X engineering lab, Project Loon is “a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters”. These balloons travel through the stratosphere above rural areas carrying signals from Telecommunication companies that have partnered with Google for the project. Users with phones can then connect directly to the network via LTE when a balloon is in their range. In 2015, Project Loon balloons had travelled over 17 million km–and one record balloon managed to cover 17 countries in a single voyage.
Elon Musk additionally believes he can solve the issue. Musk’s SpaceX plan is to launch 4000 internet satellites into low-orbit–a project that would cost a mere $10 billion to execute. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group has additionally entered the market, purchasing a number of internet satellite licensing rights just last year. It is rumored that Space X and Branson’s OneNet could collaborate on a joint project, but we just might get to Mars before the task is completed.
Overall, expanding internet access to the developing world is an important and exciting process. The global community has yet to experience total internet access–but with continued investment and innovation, 100% coverage is not out of range.