How fast is your internet? Have you ever checked around with other companies to compare their data plans? Does your home have wifi? If so, you represent the minority. In fact, out of every 100 households in LDCs (least developed countries), only seven have steady internet access. It should come as no surprise that the less integrated into the global economy a region is, the less access to reliable internet is available to its citizens. The global economic inequality has a direct effect on the unequal access to information, which contributes back to the cycle of economic hardship.
As internet connections have increased in speed and availability in developed and heavily populated regions, the sector is rapidly running out of ways to expand their market. In fact, in 2016, global internet growth was stagnant for the first time in history. The economically powerful and industrialized parts of the world are those who not only control the content on the world wide web, but they also control the entire digital marketplace. As history shows us, when a large portion of the population cannot access all relevant information, they are less capable of making the most informed decisions and thus, are more likely to be left behind. The current structure of global internet access reaffirms economic and social inequality on a tremendous scale; as those with reliable access to the internet continue to grow, those in poverty continue to lag behind economically.
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed: some of the world’s digital giants have concluded that it is unacceptable to have so many impoverished regions excluded from the many benefits of the world wide web. Facebook has launched the internet.org project which aims to bring limited internet access to those who cannot afford mobile data plans or simply where there is no data available. With their Free Basics program, individuals are able to connect to certain websites at no cost whatsoever. These websites are selected for their importance (social media, health, employment, news, etc.) and while they may not provide access to the entirety of the internet, people are provided with the basic tools to get started on the information superhighway. In order to provide this service, Facebook has developed their own signal-emitting drone named Aquila, that can beam data to already constructed stations on the land as it circles around for up to three months at a time. Not to be outdone, Google is also pioneering their own internet program. Titled Project Loon, the high-speed internet program is powered by recyclable balloons that travel twice as high as commercial airliners and has a lifespan of 180 days. While both projects have pros and cons, they are both widely regarded as an essential first step in a long process of providing internet access to the most vulnerable populations worldwide.
In this light, as companies attempt to provide data to rural and impoverished regions, the process is fueled by capitalist and altruistic notions. Expanding into these untapped markets not only helps fuel economic growth at the top of the pyramid, it also functions as an organic income multiplier for those at the bottom. The benefit of this type of development is that the digital economy can be inclusive and sustainable if carried out properly. The entities that have decided to foster this type of internet growth should be responsible for training the previously disconnected populations on how to best use the internet to their benefit. By breaking barriers and incentivizing the usage of affordable mobile data, both corporations and the people stand to gain exponentially.