Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup – 8/24/13 : Busting Internet (and business contest) balloons

Google’s Project Loon, created by the search giant’s skunkworks known as the Google X initiative, wants to float huge balloons carrying broadband transmitters above poor areas of the world to provide Internet access where none exists. Earlier this month during an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bill Gates was asked about Loon and if he thought spreading Internet would help solve serious global problems.

“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” he said.

“When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that,” he continued, “certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary health care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.”

Juxtapose Gates’s comments with those of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, who this week announced, that has the audacious goal of bringing the Internet to the two-thirds of the planet without it.

“The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be pro?table for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected,” Zuckerberg said.

Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung are joining Facebook to form Their mission, the execution of which is still pretty vague, is to make Internet access more affordable, increase the efficiency of data transmission in low bandwidth areas and encourage business models that provide even more low-cost avenues to the Web.

As The New York Times pointed out, “Facebook is already working on techniques to reduce the average amount of data used by its Android mobile app from the current 12 megabytes a day to 1 megabyte without users noticing.”

Zuckerberg and his partners aren’t alone in beating a door to the path of the BoP, notes the Times:

“Twitter, which is preparing to offer shares to the public in an initial stock offering, has struck its own deals with about 250 cellphone companies in more than 100 countries to offer some free Twitter access, and worked to make sure its service is easy to use on even the cheapest cellphones.”

And …

“Qualcomm, whose chip technology is prevalent in advanced cellphones, has created new designs to stretch a phone’s battery life, slice the amount of data needed to transmit a video and extend the reach of mobile networks through tiny devices similar to Wi-Fi routers.”

Here’s’s glossy, piano-accompanied, JFK-narrated video explaining the effort:

Note that on YouTube, the top-rated comment to the video was, of course, “How? about bringing them food first.”

There’s a lot of the great being the enemy of the good in that type response, and to a certain extent to Gates’s reply to Project Loon. I know Gates is a philanthropist and unlike Zuckerman, no longer a business person, at least not in the strict sense of the word. But there’s a whisp of defeatism in his comments. The Internet is fusing into new businesses that serve or employ the poor just about every day. Just take impact sourcing. That’s a whole industry that’s on the rise, thanks to the Internet – including service connections to rural locations.

The second-most rated YouTube comment, and another common critique, in response to the video is: “just for money? money money…”

Of course Google is in it to make money in the long term. Facebook and its partners are too, regardless of Zuckerberg’s proclamations that profits are unlikely. There’s not much more any of these companies can squeeze out of developed markets. And they can’t find new customers if those customers aren’t connected – and with the means to afford a cell phone.

The profit is the motivator, and what’s more, it’s a good moderator.

Pleading No Contest(s)

Here’s another type of balloon busting this week, courtesy of Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation. In “Dump the Prizes Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them,” Starr does the math and comes up short.

“After years of watching and participating in this stuff, I’ve concluded that it does more harm than good—and by “this stuff” I mean the whole contest/challenge/prize/award industry. Yes, this lumps together way too many disparate things; yes, there are exceptions to everything I say here; and yes, it deserves a more nuanced discussion. That’s all true, but on the whole, I think we could dump it all and not miss a thing.”

Of course, NextBillion is the location that many organizations turn to promote exactly what Starr is lamenting. His post, which was published Thursday, already has many comments, most of which are supportive of his premise. But in the spirit of transparency, I’m curious if you agree or disagree. Is Starr throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Your comments are always appreciated.

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