Vint Cerf: Google's internet evangelist on the next steps in connectivity

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google. Photo by: John F. Williams / U.S. Navy / CC BY

AUSTIN, Texas — Vint Cerf — one of the fathers of the internet and now “chief internet evangelist” at Google — drew a massive crowd at South by Southwest this week for his talk on “An Internet For And By The People.” He traveled to the festival in Austin, Texas, in part because he wanted to hear new ideas on ways to connect the unconnected — the 4 billion people worldwide who have never been online.

But he also provided a few ideas of his own. Cerf talked primarily about the work of the People Centered Internet, a group he co-founded that works with global development organizations including the World Bank on internet infrastructure projects. 

Devex asked Cerf and his People Centered Internet co-founder Mei Lin Fung about the road ahead for connectivity. Here are takeaways from the conversation.

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Connectivity is more than a technical problem

Cerf played a key role in developing the internet through his work at the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Agency. He has been at Google since 2005, identifying new internet technologies and serving as the public face for a company tackling the problem of global connectivity in a number of ways.

“Our motivation was to solve the problem, which is what engineers do,” Cerf said of his time at the Advanced Research Agency. “But once you figure out how to solve them — and in our case share them broadly — it’s like lighting a fire, just watching this ignition take place.”

Devex asked him about the growing number of forums springing up around the goal of accelerating global connectivity.

“I’m gratified that there is so much interest in trying to make the internet useful for people. I’m almost okay with whatever motivation it is that gets more internet out there, on the premise that once it gets there, people will figure out ways to use it that may not have been in the minds of people who put internet in place,” he said.

“I’m also bemused when I think about how, starting this work 40 years ago, it didn’t enter my head that we would be having discussions with governments and big banks and all these other institutions about the internet because at the time it was a technical problem.”

Mainstreaming internet infrastructure

Cerf opened his talk at South by Southwest by describing a People Centered Internet project in Tunisia to illustrate how a range of stakeholders are needed to connect the unconnected.

“When you’re going to build a dam or a road, why don’t you also build some internet to go along with it?” he said.

His comments echo thoughts that experts have shared with Devex about the need to “dig once” in order to deliver on the infrastructure that internet demands, mainstreaming internet infrastructure alongside traditional infrastructure and building them simultaneously.

The key message Cerf has for the global development community is to recognize that there is an opportunity to magnify the value of infrastructure investments and to think of the internet as a way of enhancing the utility of other efforts, Cerf told Devex.

“Who wouldn’t want to bring digital dividends to infrastructure in all of its dimensions?” he said.

Despite some concerns about the future — including around the internet of things, “whose advent we can see but whose consequences we can’t,” he said — he was optimistic about the role of the internet in smart cities.

“If you buy the argument that a city that knows itself is a better city than one that doesn’t, then we have a huge opportunity to make the concept of the city substantially more habitable than it is today,” he said. “There's this natural, mutual reinforcement that can occur when you make concurrent investment in communications technology and the other infrastructure.”

Work above ground

Google has learned that cost is an important metric in this whole equation, he continued, referencing Project Link, which has built metro fiber and wi-fi networks in Uganda and Ghana.

“We very soon discovered, after doing three or four or five cities, that digging up streets was a really expensive proposition and very disruptive, and now the question is: Is there an alternative way to provide connectivity?” he said.

X, the experimental lab of Google’s parent company Alphabet, may have found one way to do this with Project Loon, which aims to deliver internet via balloons. They have been able to manage the project better than they ever thought they could, said Cerf, allowing for fewer balloons to provide more coverage.

What does it takes to build a successful smart city? How can climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies be implemented, and how are actors in the global development community working together? Read more about what it takes to create our smart cities of the future.

“It’s really a startlingly clever design, including taking advantage of the winds at 60,000 feet to force the balloons where they need to be and then hold them to loiter,” he said. “There is a routing system, which blew my mind.”

He also suggested that high frequency radio — those in the 60 to 85 gigahertz range — could be the next big thing, holding the potential to revolutionize wireless communications in what he described as “a second life for radio.”

Connecting communities

“The idea of working at the community level, with networks of communities, comes from the beginning of the internet,” said People Centered Internet co-founder Mei Lin Fung.

She recalled words from Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, who said the only way we should harness technology on behalf of humanity was by gathering in communities.

“But it would be difficult for any single community to take advantage of the huge power that will be unleashed by technology and science and so networks of communities need to come together,” she said.

She mentioned a coalition between the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which organized Cerf’s talk at SXSW as part of its Tech for Humanity series. The partnership is connecting the IEEE’s 430,000 members with 320,000 public libraries to support community connectivity efforts around the world.

“Social impact financing is looking for a way to get the internet going because everybody can see that this is possible and money wants to go there,” she said. “People Centered Internet is working with this impact grid of libraries and communities to surface thousands of projects and create a pipeline of projects available for social impact financing.”

Hybrid financing — a mixture of public and private financing — is required to accelerate global connectivity, she said, adding that the global development community would be a welcome partner in collaborations such as this, and mentioning an upcoming event in San Francisco where she hopes these partnerships will come together.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    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.