Access to broadband Internet is the link to economic prosperity

By Tracey Grose

Whether in a low-income neighborhood in the United States or an urban center in the developing world, access to broadband internet is key to opening pathways to economic prosperity. Reliable internet connections provide new gateways to health services, education, commerce and entrepreneurship in communities around the world.

Access is not equal around the globe, and even within the United States significant disparities persist. Because of the costs of laying cables, it is easier for smaller countries with denser development patterns to achieve higher penetration rates (i.e. percentage of the population with internet). Within the U.S., rates are much higher in the small, more densely-populated states in the North East than the large states in the West.

Globally, the highest penetration rates are reported in wealthier countries with concentrated populations centers. According to Internet Live Stats, in 2014, Bermuda topped the list with 97% of the population with internet access at home followed by Qatar, Bahrain, Iceland, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark with rates of 96%. Further down the list, Brazil reported a rate of 53%, higher than China (46%), Nigeria (37%), and India (19%).

There are technology and policy barriers to expanding internet access in both, developed and developing economies. (For example, in the recent decision by the US Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet as a utility in order to ensure the open internet was highly contentious.) As progress takes different paths around the world, there is opportunity for learning best practices from each other. On the other hand, there is also concern that what is now an open global network will become partitioned into so-called "walled gardens" as countries or individual commercial service providers take greater control over what online content can be viewed. In light of the 2013 US National Security Agency spying allegations, governments such as Brazil, China as well as European Union countries are looking for ways of taking more control over local internet activities and how the data of their residents is used.

Technology companies, research teams and nonprofits are exploring innovative approaches for expanding access in the developing world.

  • Reflecting the vital role of the internet for improving the human condition today, A Human Right was founded to help expand internet access around the world. One of the projects succeeded in moving a planned transatlantic cable 500 kilometers so that it would pass by the isolated island of St. Helena, which had been relying on a single satellite connection up to that point. Other projects underway include The Bandwidth Bank which collects unused internet capacity to make it available for humanitarian purposes around the world. The nonprofit was founded by Kosta Grammatis, a serial entrepreneur, whose ventures include Satellogic, a startup developing satellite-based mesh networks, and Oluvus, described below.
  • Oluvus, (i.e. all of us), is a start up, public benefit company offering free basic internet service with revenue from additional premium services. Profits go to supporting internet access projects in the developing world.
  • Google's Project Loon has launched a network of balloons with LTE routers into the stratosphere that help to fill gaps in internet coverage in remote places as well as after disasters. After four years in development, the balloons are relatively inexpensive and can now stay up for six months are ready for commercial use. See the recent video and technical details.
  • A team of researchers from UC Berkeley and Stanford has developed ant-sized radios on a chip that will provide highly economical and efficient connectivity between gadgets. The efficiency of the device is so high that no battery is necessary – the device pulls the energy it requires from the same electromagnetic waves that carry the signals to its receiving antenna.

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