Development actors have 'big responsibility' as poorest parts of the planet come online

Smartphones for sale at the Ikeja district in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo by: REUTERS / Akintunde Akinleye

SAN FRANCISCO — As the costs of designing, testing, and deploying satellites comes down, more broadband internet satellites will launch into orbit.

Like high altitude balloons and solar-powered drones, they have the potential to offer persistent internet connections in areas where it is too expensive to build fiber optic cable and cellphone towers.

As companies race to provide internet from space, the constellation of communications satellites in low Earth orbit will rapidly expand, providing new ways to connect the unconnected.

Half of the global population does not have access to the internet, and these broadband internet satellites will play an important role in bringing 3 billion people online. While they will mainly focus on supporting the growing demand from wealthy urban areas, they will also pass over other parts of the world where future internet consumers live, said Jim Cashel, author of “The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband and How That Changes Everything. 

Devex sat down with Cashel, who believes the global development community will play an important role in maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks as the world gains access to inexpensive and reliable broadband internet access.

Providing needed perspective

Cashel’s book details the efforts of companies including SpaceX — which is known for designing, manufacturing, and launching rockets — to send broadband satellites into low earth orbit.

While SpaceX has been quiet about its work on broadband internet access, the company is launching a network of nearly 12,000 broadband satellites for an effort called Starlink to provide broadband services worldwide.

Cashel noted with concern how the SpaceX careers page outlines what appears to be exclusively technical and engineering roles. The company does not seem to be hiring for roles focused on end-users, policy issues, or local governments as it builds its Starlink team. But technical and engineering skills alone will not ensure that broadband internet access from SpaceX brings more benefits than risks to end-users in these markets, Cashel said.

“The tech companies are full of engineers that are trying to solve technical problems and they’re not thinking of implications of this technology,” he told Devex.

Facebook has demonstrated the serious consequences of building a team of engineers that do not understand the cultures in which their products and services are being introduced, Cashel warned in a recent blog post.

OneWeb, which shared news this week about its plans to deliver broadband internet service to the Arctic next year, does list a number of such roles on its careers page and invites feedback concerning future roles, Cashel said.

Companies including Amazon, which recently filed for permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to launch a network of communications satellites to provide broadband internet access, should consider looking to the global development community as they staff up to support their broadband satellite networks, he said.

These companies could benefit from the expertise of professionals who see the value of rapid internet expansion in areas like distance education, health services, and online banking, as well as the risks, including fraud, hate speech, and misinformation.

“The global development community has a really big responsibility to help manage this process,” Cashel told Devex. “The tech firms driving this transformation have no idea about secondary and tertiary effects.”

Easing the transition

People in developed countries have experienced the evolution toward faster internet speeds, lower prices for bandwidth, and increased capabilities on mobile phones. But in developing countries, more powerful technologies will appear in less developed environments, Cashel said.

It can be hard for these new users to understand the full range of capabilities of smartphones, which in high-income countries have replaced many of the devices from cameras to alarm clocks to calculators.

“The experience right now of poor villagers is they’re basically handed a smartphone that has preloaded apps and it’s like: there you go,” Cashel told Devex.

Instead, he asks what an ideal new online experience for new smartphone users might be. Cashel suggests a welcome video to greet the user, a quick tutorial on basic services, and guides for how to avoid problems including fake news. Ideally, this would be developed by independent organizations that avoid favoring any given corporation, he said.

Cashel is optimistic about the spread of global broadband access in the next few years, but access is only one of the challenges standing in the way of global internet usage. Other barriers include cost, education, relevance, and infrastructure, for example, a lack of electricity, according to a report by the International Telecommunications Union and the World Economic Forum.

In areas with insufficient population or wealth, government assistance is one of several other interventions needed to promote access and adoption, Cashel explained.

He is concerned that too many people are distracted by the space race between companies looking to deploy broadband internet satellites, rather than what it will mean for billions of people to come online for the first time.

“The global development community sort of feels like broadband internet access has been overpromised and underdelivered, which is true with yesterday’s technology,” Cashel said. “What’s different is tomorrow’s technology is actually going to reach everywhere — including the poorest parts of the planet that the development community cares most about that has never had access.”

Cashel said he hopes his book can help the global development community understand how imminent this transition is as well as the steps they can take to make the experience better for people coming online for the first time.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.