Crossing the digital divide
Ambitious IT projects aim to create a truly connected world.
In high-tech global hot spots, the Internet has transformed nearly every aspect of daily life. But for more than 60 percent of the world’s population, the digital revolution remains out of reach. To get more people online—and spur Internet-enabled growth—developing countries and global organizations are prioritizing IT infrastructure projects.
About three-quarters of the world’s offline population lives in just 20 countries—and these people are disproportionately rural and low-income, according to McKinsey. In these areas, obstacles to Internet adoption involve infrastructure, affordability and local levels of digital literacy.
To overcome these challenges, the government of the Philippines is sponsoring a program to significantly expand Internet access. Launched late last year, the US$31 million Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Places initiative will help connect citizens to online public services, such as health and education.
“In rural areas, many Filipinos are unaware of the wealth of information available on the Internet that can significantly change their lives.”
—Louis Napoleon Casambre, Republic of the Philippines information and communications technology office, Quezon City, Philippines
“In rural areas, many Filipinos are unaware of the wealth of information available on the Internet that can significantly change their lives,” says Louis Napoleon Casambre, executive director, information and communications technology office, Republic of the Philippines, Quezon City, Philippines. “The project aims to accelerate economic, social and education opportunities and reduce the digital divide.”
Like other such initiatives, the Philippines program will rely on public-private partnerships. It will establish connectivity via private-sector Internet service providers, but in areas where the private sector has no broadband infrastructure, the government will build its own, Mr. Casambre says.
Similarly, the Indian government’s US$18 billion Digital India program aims to provide Internet access to everyone in the country via a national fiber-optic network. India is home to 1.1 billion offline citizens—the world’s largest disconnected population.
By 2017, a US$5.9 billion project will expand rural Internet coverage from 130,000 villages to 250,000. The program also plans to provide cloud storage for citizens, make banking and other private data accessible on mobile phones, and offer free Wi-Fi at 250,000 government schools.
“The entire country will be covered by broadband within three years, and the Internet will reach the most remote villages,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s minister of communications and IT, told Forbes. “India is sitting at the cusp of a huge digital revolution.”
To meet its ambitious timeline and guarantee successful project execution and Internet usage, the government plans to hire 10 high-level project leaders to oversee the Digital India program.
Source: McKinsey, Offline and falling behind: Barriers to Internet adoption
While large-scale government initiatives such as Digital India work to connect large swaths of disconnected populations via traditional means—laying fiber-optic cables in the ground—the private sector is devising groundbreaking innovations.
Satellite communications organization O3b Networks gets more communities online by bypassing two roadblocks that have plagued connectivity projects in many emerging markets: the high cost of installing fiber-optic cables and the high latency (or time delay) of traditional, high-orbit satellites. O3b’s solution sends satellites into medium orbit, about 5,000 miles (8,062 kilometers) above the Earth, which reduces both latency and costs.
A team prepares an O3b Networks satellite for launch.
PHOTO COURTESY OF O3B NETWORKS
In addition, an O3b satellite has the capacity to handle exponentially larger amounts of data—up to 1.6 gigabits per second compared to the traditional range of 1 to 10 megabits of data per second, says Stewart Sanders, CTO, O3b Networks, the Hague, the Netherlands. And while high-orbit satellites have a broader reach, O3b satellites’ lower orbit level provides a much lower latency and makes it easier to launch more of them as demand for Internet access increases. O3b has successfully launched 12 satellites through three projects executed since 2008—each with a 27-month timeline from build to launch.
Yet the satellites’ closer position has also presented technical challenges. Because satellites can’t be geostationary (residing in a fixed position) at lower orbits, the project team had to develop movable ground antennas to maintain a strong signal with each satellite.
O3b’s projects also must contend with myriad stakeholders across sectors and borders. “The satellite is made of components built by hundreds of different subcontractors,” Mr. Sanders says. “There are also our own shareholders and the customers themselves.” The key to managing so many voices, he says, is “keeping the information flowing to everyone.”
More Than Hot Air
Google has a different approach to extraterrestrial connectivity: balloons.
As part of a US$1billion program, Google’s Project Loon is building a fleet of high-altitude balloons that will provide broadband service to unconnected regions. Project Loon started with a 2013 pilot in New Zealand that put 30 balloons in the air. That project allowed Google to refine its manufacturing process, decrease the number of balloon leaks and improve its ability to pinpoint their positions.
The pilot project refined Google’s vision for expanded Internet access, and helped convince potential partners that Project Loon wasn’t so loony, after all. In December 2014, French space agency CNES announced it would work with Google to deploy more than 100,000 balloons.
But to succeed, airborne connectivity projects must have international support. “We needed authorizations from 78 nations in the latitudes we wanted to use,” Philippe Cocquerez, CNES project head, told SpaceNews. “It’s a lot of diplomatic work.” —Novid Parsi
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