A host of governments, United Nations agencies and tech companies, including Google, are working on projects aimed at providing developing countries with low-cost broadband Internet connectivity.
“Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters,” says Google on its Project Loon Website.
While wary of the idea, Laura Hosman of Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology encourages creative solutions to help narrow the digital divide, given the explosive growth of mobile phones among “even the poorest of the poor.”
And that makes Wi-Fi connectivity essential for the developing world’s six billion phone users.
Recognizing that need, Inveneo, a San Francisco-based non-profit social enterprise firm, built its largest project in Haiti – a long-distance wireless network that gave non-profit groups communications and Internet access following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
The project then moved to build broadband connectivity in other rural parts of the world – no small task.
“You can’t just build something and then leave,” said Inveneo’s CTO Andris Bjornson. “I mean, you have to create … knowledge and … a human infrastructure to support the network.”
A Wi-Fi network has to have access to electricity or other power source, like solar power, an Internet connection two miles away from the project location, and a line of sight.
Longer-range Wi-Fi requires “special software to verify that there are … no mountains, no hills, no obstruction” in its path, Bjornson said.
Once the network is established, Inveneo trains partners in 25 countries to build capacity and run the projects.
Wi-Fi networks also need content and content providers. But Hosman says many ISPs avoid building infrastructure in poor, rural areas because they see no profit in it.
Nevertheless, Hosman considers any infrastructure that brings Internet connectivity to developing regions a step in the right direction because it is “infrastructure that’s missing, that is causing basic needs not to be met.”
“I don’t feel like it is necessary to separate out basic needs from the ability to communicate and … get information because you could define those as basic needs,” she said.
“Nobody would argue that someone would rather have Internet than eat,” said Bjornson.
But neither should “the importance of the Internet giving someone additional opportunities to … make more money that allows them to buy more bread” be underestimated, he added.
An Internet connection and the right application can let a farmer in remote parts of Asia or Africa, for example, track livestock and crop prices to help her make more informed decisions.