When we look at the broadband speeds available in other developed countries, we might feel a little bit shortchanged, but the reality is that for the most part, we in America take our own Internet access largely for granted. Looking at the reality of Internet in the Third World really reminds us that all in all, we have it pretty good, especially in terms of getting affordable access to the entire Internet, and not just part of it.
First of all, while most customers in the U.S. can buy unlimited data plans for their mobile devices for something like $20–$40 a month, customers in developing countries like India pay a lot more. This techCrunch piece from June shows how a 500 MB data plan in India can cost a minimum-wage worker up to 17 hours' worth of labor per month. For Americans, it's more like two or three hours of labor, even at or around minimum wage. So you can imagine the challenges for families in countries where breadwinners work a couple of days each month just for a data plan.
There's also the issue of how to make access practical in developing countries, especially in the rural areas. Global surveys indicate that many communities around the world don't have Internet access at all. We see maps and charts of the elaborate systems that American carriers built across the country to make Internet and data access ubiquitous, but it doesn't really sink in until you look at other areas of the world, and realize that because carriers haven't sunk millions of dollars into setting up towers, there really is no practical access in huge areas of the globe.
Sending Out Trial Balloons
One effort to deal with this reality is Google's Project Loon – we reported on this a couple of months ago, and it's one of the most proactive initiatives to try to get more people around the world linked up to data networks.
In very recent news, Google announced it’s partnering with Indonesian telecoms to launch a broader access program there. Other early adopters include countries like Sri Lanka. This article also details how Google goals include reaching up to 4 billion new data subscribers with Project Loon. It's in the early stages in terms of implementation, so it remains to be seen just how much Loon will improve global access.
Making Internet Affordable – Facebook's Internet.org/Free Basics Program
Another initiative by another big tech company, social media giant Facebook, has actually drawn pretty widespread criticism, even though its planners protest that they're only trying to save low-income subscribers money.
Facebook’s project, alternately known as Internet.org or Free Basics, plans to allow subscribers in countries like India to sign up for a limited type of Internet connectivity for a lower monthly fee. The problem here is that this technically violates the principle of net neutrality that's become such a watchword for a wide spectrum of tech enthusiasts around the world.
Net neutrality is the idea that every website or page should be equally available to customers. There shouldn’t be any kind of “content throttling” or favorable service by ISPs that gives a particular site or collection of sites an “express lane” on the information superhighway. And net neutrality has been vehemently defended so far, in the U.S. and elsewhere.
A limited-access Web service violates net neutrality on principle – it doesn’t just create two tiers of access – it picks and chooses what users can find!
In fact, criticism of Facebook's plan has gone up the food chain to someone many people consider one of the first founders of the Internet – Tim Berners-Lee of the W3C. In a widely reported Guardian interview, this is what Berners-Lee had to say:
“In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded Internet, it’s not Internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of Internet connectivity and giving something … (only) giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
Talking about Facebook's project, Mark Zuckerberg describes Internet.org as a way to bring more people online at rates they can afford. However, we've really come to a crossroads in terms of Internet principles – do we value simply connectivity by more people, or do we hold true to the ideal of offering every connected citizen access to the full Internet?
It's a thorny question and one that has to do with things like state censorship and propaganda, objectionable content, and other types of societal and cultural differences that we have as a community of nations. Because abroad, and in the U.S., a spectrum of net neutrality advocates have the same goals – working against various lobbying interests and trying to ensure that more people can afford to surf the entire Internet, not just a part of it.