Google, HSBC and others want to bring satellite-based Internet to the developing world

But it may be a little tougher than they expect.

Published September 10, 2008 2:00PM (EDT)

As a fan of the Internet, and as a bigger fan of bringing the Internet to those who aren't using it yet -- and, heck, constantly being impressed with what Google decides to put its mind and dollars to -- I was really pleased to hear Tuesday that Google, HSBC and others are tossing up $60 million (about a 10th of what the actual cost will be) as the startup capital for a new array of 16 low-orbit satellites that will bring (presumably low-cost) Internet access to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Now, while it's really easy to get swept up in the touchy-feely idea of bringing Internet access to the developing world, the reality is a bit harder to swallow.

So who's behind this effort, known by its catchy acronym, O3B? That's the "Other 3 Billion" who apparently aren't online. First off, there's no way that half of the world's 6 billion plus people aren't online. According to the ITU's statistics from 2004: "There are more Internet users in Seoul (Republic of Korea) than all of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa." And "there are more Internet users in London than in the whole of Pakistan." Plus, according to more recent statistics from 2007, Africa has only 5 million people online, or about 5 percent of the continent's population. By contrast, India and China have a combined Internet population of only about 300 million, so there's no way that the rest of the world's online population adds up to 3 billion.

The man in charge of O3B is tech entrepreneur and dreamer Greg Wyler, 38, who was written up in the Wall Street Journal about two years ago under the headline: "Entrepreneur Has Quixotic Goal of Wiring Rwanda." (Key line: "Until three years ago, Mr. Wyler had never been to Africa.")

About a year later, the New York Times profiled him again under the headline "Africa, Offline: Waiting for the Web":

But after nearly four years, most of the benefits hailed by him and his company have failed to materialize, Rwandan officials say. "The bottom line is that he promised many things and didn't deliver," said Albert Butare, the country's telecommunications minister.

Mr. Wyler says he sees things quite differently, and he and Rwandan officials will probably never agree on why their joint venture has been so slow to get off the ground. But Terracom's tale is more than a story about a business dispute in Rwanda. It is also emblematic of what can happen when good intentions run into the technical, political and business realities of Africa.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa's population is connected to the Web; most subscribers are in North African countries and the republic of South Africa.

The article continues:

Over all, less than 1 percent of the population is connected to the Internet. Rwandan officials say the company seems more interested in tapping the more lucrative cellphone market than in being an Internet service provider. (In November, Mr. Wyler stepped down as chief executive of Terracom, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family; he still serves on the board.)

In a telephone interview from his home in Boston, Mr. Wyler said he would not address the government's criticism, saying he did not want to be quoted as saying anything negative. But he said there were some things he had not anticipated, particularly the technical challenges of linking Rwanda's Internet network to the rest of the world. The only way to do it is to buy bandwidth capacity on satellites, but there are not enough satellites to meet demand.

Which I guess explains Wyler's recent fixation on satellites.

Now, while I'm hardly an expert on Africa, I have actually lived on the continent for seven months, while a student at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal. In fact, I wrote my senior thesis on the Internet in Senegal, and went back to the country last year to see how things were shaping up. Basically, my conclusions were the same, which is to say that while it's great to want to help Africa as much as possible, a lot of big hurdles need to be overcome before the Internet can take root.

Yes, it is true that in many big African cities -- as I've observed firsthand in Dakar -- you'll probably see the same scene: poor, urban boys pooling their money to watch American rap videos on YouTube rubbing shoulders with middle-class girls looking for dates across town or across the globe. But for most of the population, the Internet might not as well exist. You can't use the Internet if you can't read, and in a country like Senegal, literacy is only 40 percent. That's not to mention the other major issues like schools, roads and infrastructure that need to be dealt with before something like the Internet can take root and have the transformative effect that it has had in much of the Western world.

All this is not to say that it's not worth bringing the Internet to the developing world at all. In fact, a decade ago, millions of our tax dollars went to the Leland Initiative, a USAID program that brought better connectivity to the continent. A related program, the Digital Freedom Initiative, was piloted in Senegal in 2003, was slated for three years and was killed after only two.

More recently, the One Laptop Per Child project has tried to bring low-cost laptops to the developing world -- but without really addressing how those laptops are going to get online in, say, rural Thailand. Further, the entire project has had quite limited success. Another much more modest nonprofit, Inveneo, is using solar panels, Linux boxes and VoIP to bring computing to the developing world. Still, while its approach remains the best I've seen so far, it has only a few hundred machines out in the wild.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's easy to promise that by 2010 there will be 10-Gbps service in the global South and that it will have a transformative effect on that part of the world. Frankly, I'm a bit skeptical. That said, I would love to be proved wrong.

By Cyrus Farivar

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