Facebook, Google, NGOs: Collaborators on the connectivity challenge

By Catherine Cheney 01 March 2017

Students in a classroom in Nanyuki, Kenya, powered by TV white spaces. Photo by: afromusing / CC BY

Critics once said that anyone hoping to deliver internet to remote areas via balloons had not only their work in the clouds, but also their heads. Yet earlier this month, the team behind Project Loon announced that they are years closer to their goal of “balloon powered internet for everyone,” convincing some that balloons may in fact be part of the path to connecting the unconnected.

Still, at X — the moonshot factory of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, where Project Loon is being developed — there is recognition that coverage is only one part of the challenge when it comes to reaching the half of the world’s population who have never been online.

“We very much intend to be part of an ecosystem,” Astro Teller, captain of Moonshots at X, told Devex after rollerblading onto a panel discussion at the Google campus in Mountain View, California. Google is actively partnering with actors ranging from telecommunication companies to donor agencies on the connectivity challenge, he said.

Some of these efforts mean turning competitors into collaborators, with some of the world’s biggest technology companies working on solutions to connect the unconnected. Others mean bringing in the partnership of the social sector and the global development community.

Facebook — which is working on different solutions to the same problem at Connectivity Labs just down the road from X — often frames the barriers to internet access as not only availability but also affordability and awareness. Facebook acknowledges that the global development community will be a critical partner, together with the technology industry, to address these complex and interconnected challenges. Technology companies share an interest in providing underserved communities with affordable internet access, and so competitors are collaborating on this effort, said Paul Garnett, director of the Affordable Access Initiative at Microsoft.

As the Mobile World Congress gathers professionals from the technology industry and the social sector in Barcelona, Spain, this week, Devex checked in on the ways that the global connectivity effort is driving collaboration between competitors, and what that means for the global development community.

No single solution

Last month, representatives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other U.S. technology companies working on balloons, drones and satellite networks as part of their global wireless broadband strategies gathered at New America in Washington, D.C., to discuss the challenge of bringing the next 3 billion people online.

“There’s no magical solution, one solution, either in respect to technology or business that you can use to serve all of the earth’s problems in connectivity,” said Marian Croak, vice president of access strategy and emerging markets at Google. She presented a slide outlining different technologies for different population densities, such as terrestrial wireless for high density and aerial wireless for low density.

This is a “huge problem, as you know,” she continued, addressing a roomful of representatives from technology companies, NGOs and the government. “And so we welcome your partnership.”

When Bob Pepper, head of global connectivity policy and planning at Facebook, took the stage, he joked that he could have switched presentations with Croak, given the many issues they agreed on. Talking about how there is no “one size fits all” solution to the challenge of global connectivity and emphasizing the need to identify and fill the gaps, he put up a slide very similar to one that preceded him, laying out different solutions for different areas, from millimeter wave technology to unmanned aerial vehicles to satellites.

Pepper also echoed comments from Croak on the need to partner in order to accelerate progress toward a globally connected world and to make improvements in areas such as price and performance.

“How do we really step up to not only [get] more people connected [but, also] at faster speeds?” he said. “It’s not binary. It’s not am I connected or not? Think about the dial up days.”

There are opportunities for collaboration in the policy space, the technology standardization space, and even on pilots and deployments in the commercial space, Microsoft’s Garnett said at the event. “But at the end of the day we are competitors.”

Recently, X hired a satellite company executive and ended the project phase of using solar powered drones to deliver internet connectivity, signaling that Project Loon could go from experiment to enterprise. Meanwhile, Facebook, which is ramping up flights of its Aquila drone, has brought on individuals with global development backgrounds to address issues such as literacy that can delay the transition from access to adoption.

As technology companies increasingly look to skills the social sector can offer, global development professionals also need to develop their understanding of the technologies that are most likely to provide unconnected populations with low-cost access, Garnett told Devex. These include TV white space, a technology that can extend fiber broadband, he said, and satellite where fiber is unavailable.

Behind the scenes

In October, Geeks Without Frontiers — an organization whose “Broadband for the Next Billion” project is a “low cost, open source, mesh-based WiFi technology” — hosted a thought leadership summit entitled “Connectivity is the Revolution!”

“It’s important we know who our colleagues are and that we try to be as cross disciplinary as possible” Michael Potter, founder of Geeks Without Frontiers, told Devex. “A lot of the problems we have are because people don’t feel comfortable getting out of their silos.”

Participants at the event included representatives ranging from technology companies such as Facebook and Google to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and from the World Bank to the space community.

At the event, the organization released model legislation for a “dig once” policy to outline how governments and nongovernmental organizations might incorporate laying internet fiber into infrastructure development projects.

“Some of these countries don’t have basic infrastructure like energy, electricity, roads,” said Manu Bhardwaj, who helped lead the Global Connect Initiative, a U.S. government effort to improve Internet access, which also serves as a clearinghouse of connectivity efforts.

“The internet, you know, is a luxury. I understand the point,” said Bhardwaj, who represented the State Department at the Geeks Without Frontiers event, but stepped down from his post at State in January. “But through the initiative we were trying to say — look, internet infrastructure is actually just as important in many ways as traditional infrastructure to your economic growth, to your communities, and we need to start treating it as such.”

He mentioned the dig once policy as one example of the ways in which institutions can think more strategically about how to deliver on infrastructure and internet at the same time. The global development community can help local governments to see connectivity and more traditional infrastructure not as an “either-or” but as a “both,” he said. The Global Connect Initiative and the World Bank — with John Kerry and Jim Kim at the helm — convened a group of finance ministers on the subject, and conversations are expected to continue around upcoming World Bank meetings.

“When you go broadband, and especially when you start talking about metropolitan areas, you have to have shared infrastructure, period,” said Darrell Owen, a consultant who has worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development and others on affordable internet for rural communities. He said the need for dig once is obvious, so that carriers in metropolitan areas are not digging up streets to get fiber in place. But because going rural means bringing capital expenditure and operating expenditure way down, he said, the point is to coordinate efforts, whether on fiber, drones, balloons or microsatellites. “What you need is a national shared backbone. Whether you dig it or put it on towers, who cares?”

There needs to be more collaboration to connect the unconnected, such as the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, a cross-industry organization that advocates for laws and regulations to increase the use of unused radio frequencies, Owen said. Other examples of competitors coming together in the service of global connectivity include the Small Cell Forum, which unites manufacturers that make low-cost cell phones, and the Global VSAT Forum, which provides a unified voice for the satellite industry, he said. Coalitions like these are represented at the Mobile World Congress, produced by GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide.

Despite the growing number of initiatives, the approaches remain fragmented, said Jim Forster, who established a nonprofit with a mission to reduce poverty by improving internet access and is the chair of Mawingu Networks, which is providing wireless internet in Kenya.

“There is a disconnect between the commercial high flyers and the economic development thinkers and the activity on the ground,” he said.

He describes the internet as a highway and road system, with fiber serving as a sort of superhighway at the country level, and investment opportunities for small businesses to set up filling stations to connect roads to one another.

What can the global development community learn from these efforts to collaborate in order to close the digital divide? A recent report points to ways to fill some of these gaps. For example, investments from the multilateral development banks and other development finance institutions often benefit from commercially viable opportunities serving urban and middle class populations. Technology companies together with global development organizations can support early stage businesses focused on access in emerging markets.

“Don’t think about it as ‘these three companies think they can come in and solve all the infrastructure challenges in Africa’,” Kevin Connolly, who works on Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative with Garnett, said of Microsoft, Google and Facebook at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University.

“I think it’s more about us working behind the scenes in a lot of cases to allow the Mawingus of the world to go out and solve their own problems, to build their own businesses, to employ people locally, and really build up that economic benefit that you get when people are solving their own last mile problems,” he said.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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