World famous entrepreneurs Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, have both recently announced separate initiatives to provide global Internet access via a vast network of small satellites spanning the globe. The plans propose to blanket the planet in coverage, overcoming many of the obstacles standing in the way of connecting four billion people that still lack Internet service.
As someone who has been running an organization to deliver rural areas in developing countries with connectivity, I greet these announcements with both excitement and a bit of skepticism. While the focus of high-profile entrepreneurs on this vitally important effort will bring increased interest and attention to connecting the world, their approach solves very few of the actual barriers to providing access. So, what are the real challenges?
Billions of people lack electricity on the ground. Power serves as the foundation for true community development. People can connect computers, lights, and any other device to a few solar panels, but access to these opportunities remains limited. So, while a network of satellites might make connectivity possible in theory, in effect, billions of rural people will still have no means of leveraging this potential.
To bring service to a community, one needs a receiver on the ground to distribute that signal to a decently-sized area at an affordable price. If communities have not installed one of these, then a satellite becomes pretty useless. There is no way of avoiding work on the ground to set up a connection.
Political and Regulatory Barriers
There exists plenty of technology to beam wireless Internet signal great distances on the ground and low-cost base stations to distribute a signal. It is a simple, flexible, and agile political and regulatory environment that is most lacking. Employing new technologies in the field requires navigating years of red tape in each individual country. A satellite network does nothing to improve this process.
Getting a community with little previous experience with communications technology to maximize the potential that connectivity provides poses the greatest challenge. Rural communities fervently seek ICTs, but it takes time and training to educate people on how to use computers successfully. Without this focused effort, these technologies may intimidate some individuals. Especially in areas where traditional methods of living have existed for hundreds or thousands of years, introducing a novel technology requires trust and cultural understanding. No doubt individuals are excited about technology, however, a sensitive facilitator must aid the process.
All of these barriers share a common theme. The true challenges of extending connectivity come in the form of community development. An organization must be on the ground delivering electricity, navigating political barriers, and understanding socio-cultural needs if the potential for improved education, healthcare, and economic opportunity is to ever come to fruition. While a global network of satellite connectivity seems to theoretically solve a lot of problems, in practice, much of the work remains.
Many realistic, scalable solutions for the delicate work of navigating local contexts to introduce and maximize the benefit of technology already exist. Local partnerships and collaboration allow organizations to flexibly adapt to the cultural specifics, logistical organizing, and regulatory realities of each project. Low-cost telecommunications technologies like wireless backhaul and small-cell base stations make extending networks to rural areas economically feasible. Dedicated individuals and organizations with the experience and passion to bridge these gaps tie this complex ecosystem into a cohesive, functioning, and sustainable whole.
Alex Blum is the Founder and CEO of Rugged Communications, a designer of holistic ICT4D solutions and consultancy. He holds an MS in Global Technology and Development. He writes about ICT4D, entrepreneurship, emerging technology, and telemedicine. Find him on Twitter @ruggedcomms or follow up with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.