Innovating for a More Connected World

Feb 24

Through my work with USAID and the Peace Corps, I often have the opportunity to attend conferences that bring together key thought leaders on pressing international development issues. I thoroughly enjoyed a recent forum hosted by New America, “The Next Three Billion – Initiatives to Bring the Whole World Online.”

Experts from NGOs, and the public and private sectors, gathered to discuss how to more quickly bring 1.5 billion people around the world online by 2020. Attendees included representatives from the U.S. State Department, USAID, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and The ONE Campaign.

What’s at Stake?

Today, more than half of the world’s population (4 billion people) remains digitally disconnected, leaving them isolated and economically disadvantaged—especially in rural parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. There are several contributing factors including limited storage and memory on phones, unstable power sources, network congestion, bandwidth constraints, and cost-prohibitive data plans.

The development community understands that digital connectivity is a central issue for economic growth and development. In 2015, the State Department and the World Bank launched the Global Connect Initiative (GCI) with the goal of getting an additional 1.5 billion people online by 2020.


The conference focused on two key takeaways related to this issue.

Growing consensus to seize the moment. With the launch of GCI, there is growing acknowledgement among government leaders that Internet connectivity is as important as traditional infrastructure. In fact, 12 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have directives around information and communications technology (ICT). In developing countries, this represents a shift in responsibility: until recently, finance ministers believed education ministers should address this issue. The need to help countries bolster their connectivity also has bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and President Trump.

Public/private sector collaboration is critical. Tech evangelist Meghan Smith said, “…increasing connectivity is the most critical and extraordinary service work we can do, and every idea contributes to the greater good, whether it’s from industry, NGOs, local governments, high school students, or young children living in developing nations.” In other words, this is not just the responsibility of the tech industry; policy and advocacy are also needed, which includes:

  • Working with U.S. government and country leaders to institute policies that will catalyze the work that is happening overseas.
  • Urging national government officials from developing economies to prioritize connectivity. Mission-critical sites include rural schools and hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and South America.


Which Private Sector Projects Are Leading the Way?

Representatives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and OneWeb discussed how their companies are bridging the digital divide.

Global wireless broadband strategies

Marian Croak, VP of Access Strategy at Google, discussed the company’s focus on creating more affordable and abundant access. She emphasized that there is no magical solution in technology or business—we must apply a variety of models to reach different communities in new ways. One of Google’s great successes has been working with Indian Railways and RailTel to increase WiFi access by layering in fiber along the tracks at train stations. To date, Google has built 112 WiFi hot spots that now have 6 million active users, including high school students who come to the stations to do their homework.

Google’s moonshot

Project Loon is another exciting project led by Google’s sister partner, X, which has built a network of balloons that travel at 20km within the stratosphere (above the weather) to provide connectivity for rural areas across the globe. To date, these balloons have flown over 16 million miles, transmitting high-speed Internet access to people’s handsets on the ground in Latin America. In 5 to 7 years, Google envisions that these balloons will provide sustained access to the most remote regions.

From fiber optics to satellite technology

Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb, is building O3B (“other 3 billion”) Networks—the world’s fastest satellites connecting directly to homes and schools. OneWeb’s first goal is to connect every school in the world by 2022. Then, by 2027, they plan to completely bridge the digital divide by providing broadband access to anyone who wants it at a GDP-adjusted affordable rate. OneWeb expects to have launched at least 10 satellites by 2018.

Moving from scarcity to abundance

Bob Pepper, Head of Global Connectivity Policy & Planning at Facebook, discussed the need to identify and fill the gaps where people are still not connected or are “under-connected.” Facebook is testing the use of large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the wingspan of a 737. These UAVs will use lasers to connect remote areas, or cities such as Mumbai, where fiber will not be installed in the near future. Another dimension to this issue is community awareness. To that end, Facebook launched Free Basics—a “skinny version” of Internet access that is non-exclusive to mobile partners. A key learning from this effort is that as soon as people get introduced to the basics, they want to ramp up for more sophisticated information, including video and imagery.

Moving forward—can we move even faster?

Cecilia Kang, National Technology Correspondent for The New York Times, asked an important concluding question: “You are all competitors with proprietary projects. Are there ways to work together to ensure greater efficiency?”

The collective response was optimistic: The tech industry recognizes that expanded connectivity also expands business opportunity. So the private sector has a vested interest in developing a sustainable business model that ensures universal access. These new technologies and innovations are not sold as a service and the business goal is simply to recover their costs.

The speakers adamantly agreed that there is also a genuine passion to achieve this goal. This mission is part of “doing good by doing well” and according to Facebook, creates a “virtuous cycle of growing the economy and creating more vibrant, educated societies.”

In just a few years at most, these innovations and collaborations will culminate with a flip of switch in expanding access to many more great minds. As a result, economic development and growth across the globe will get an unprecedented boost.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 24th, 2017 at 10:14 am and is filed under International Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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