Connectivity for the Bottom Billion: A Call for Collective Action
In the developed world, we take the universal availability of the Internet largely for granted. That connectivity in turn creates tremendous opportunities and benefits for individuals and businesses alike. What we often forget is that less than half of the world’s population has access to the Internet. Most of the 4 billion people who live in an unconnected world live in developing countries in Africa and South Asia. The problem is particularly acute for the billion people with the lowest incomes, who tend to live in rural areas of developing countries where there is little or no infrastructure to provide connectivity. This lack of access to connectivity leaves billions cut off from the Internet and thus the ability to use it to improve their lives and economic situations.
Recently, technology leaders and policymakers have placed increasing focus on bringing the world’s 4 billion unconnected online. For example, Google and Facebook are investing in advanced new technologies, including balloons and drones, and Microsoft and others are investing in TV White Spaces, which delivers high-speed internet over long distances through unused spectrum. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Kerry recently hosted world leaders to launch the Global Connect Initiative, which seeks to catalyze policy makers and donors to do more to push for universal access.
The increased attention on universal connectivity is essential because the evidence suggests that there does need to be a major paradigm shift in order to bring the bottom 4 billion online. At SSG Advisors with support from the mSTAR project of FHI 360, we’ve been working with technologists, industry leaders, investors, entrepreneurs and policymakers from around the world to explore what it would take to bring the bottom billion online. Our analysis focused on the toughest use case: the rural poor living in less developed countries.
Through interviews and design thinking workshops in Silicon Valley, India, Kenya, the Philippines and Washington D.C., we learned that current approaches to providing Internet connectivity (which happen primarily through mobile networks) are reaching their limits. Mobile network operators have done an impressive job connecting the world with voice and data services. However, we uncovered broad consensus that most industry players do not see rural, low-income markets as commercially viable. This disconnect threatens to leave billions of people – especially in rural parts of Africa and Asia – without access to the Internet.