In a recent article in WIRED, journalist Klint Finley addressed the approaches that businesses and governments are taking to extending Internet connectivity to the majority of the world that still lacks it. He points out that while high-profile efforts like Facebook’s drones, OneWeb’s low-earth orbit satellites, and Google’s Loon balloons have drawn attention for their cool technology and ambitious visions for blanketing the world with high-speed Internet from above, the bulk of growth in connectivity is due to decidedly “old-fashioned” techniques: stretching new fiber optic cable across the world’s oceans and land masses, building towers, and using the wireless, mobile, and landline networks to connect to the end user.
The reality, however, is that, while technological infrastructure is central to the Internet’s growth, it is rarely the decisive factor. Rather, regardless of approach, almost every Internet expansion initiative must wrestle with three core factors: the business model, the legal and regulatory context, and the interests of incumbent players.
- Internet providers need to lower costs and find new revenue sources in order to reach low-income populations. This will often mean finding new applications for low-cost technologies, sharing core network infrastructure with other providers, and developing alternative revenue sources from advertising and value-added services.
- Favorable laws and regulations – and governments that fairly and reliably enforce them – are critical to the success of the global network. Despite its digital face, the Internet has a substantial footprint in the physical world. Towers, cables, internet exchange points, wireless spectrum, and data centers all in turn require licensing, right of way permits, and enforceable contracts.
- Not everyone wants change – entrenched interests can be some of the biggest obstacles to new approaches that increase competition and drive down costs. Local government and incumbent telecommunications operators may have strong incentives to maintain the status quo and/or limit competition.
Bringing the next three billion online is an ambitious, but achievable goal. While ‘moonshot’ efforts such as Project Loon and others are important for pushing the bounds of technology, it is critical that companies, investors, and governments also focus on the business models, infrastructure, and enabling environment factors that shape the marketplace.