Nonfiction in response to Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
Optimizing the World Wide Web with Global Access
By Ilana Arougheti
For most of you currently reading this article on your web browser, it’s probably hard to imagine daily life without the Internet. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 50 million Wi-Fi networks are currently hosted in the United States. This strong volume of connection points makes your average 24 hours a week of “computer time” possible, as you stream, learn, write, work, and communicate, and generate a staggering amount of data. One Singapore-based research firm, Aureus Analysis, projects that due to Internet usage and generativity, 90% of all of the world’s data originated between 2016 and 2018.
Like it or not, the World Wide Web has become a staggering presence in communication, commerce, and industry – at least, for those lucky enough to have access. According to Statista, internet access worldwide is currently restricted to about 4.1 billion users. While this may sound like a lot, it translates to an internet penetration rate of only about 54%, indicating that nearly half the population does not have Web access. In the midst of a generally successful and culturally definitive digital age, it is unthinkable that so many citizens of the world should be so left in the dark. For the sake of progress, developing countries and tech-heavy nations alike should prioritize national efforts to provide free and reliable Wi-Fi access to everyone.
For one thing, free wireless internet gives individuals fast, essential access to current events and explanatory information, creating a more involved and aware public body. Internet access is arguably more of a right than a convenience, as it supports the rights to free speech, free expression of opinion, and freedom of the press. In fact, the United Nations issued a resolution in July 2016 affirming unhindered Internet access as a human right and calling for national public Internet policies across the board geared towards increasing universal access.
Increased internet access would also increase the success of educational, philanthropic, and democratic projects worldwide. The more people have internet access, the wider audience various digitally marketed initiatives, like global improvement programs or political campaigns, would reach. A resulting increase would be visible in local advocacy and voter participation, respectively, both of which are good for democratic societies. The same concept of more users precipitating more use also applies to the educational capabilities of the internet, potentially marking a rise in digital literacy, STEM skill use, online high school and college course usage, and the like.
Consistent Internet access doesn’t just present a country with opportunities for growth in the e-commerce industry – it enables other industries and businesses to expand through online platforms. Today, new companies and small businesses require an online presence to thrive. In the United States, 60% of small businesses are started from home, so products and marketing are spread through online platforms. In addition, 88% of all businesses use social media for marketing. With reliable web access, would-be entrepreneurs in developing countries can more easily dip their toe into industry, spreading personal financial success and demonstrating an essential impetus to succeed in business.
In addition, reliable wireless connection is generally a sign of success. Countries with slow and unreliable access tend to also suffer from poor physical infrastructure and fragmented systems of government. An area with reliable public wireless promotes a good environment for technological companies and allows more complex manufacturing industries to sustain operations centers in the area. In the age of e-commerce and the skill-based economy, tech-friendliness would provide encouragement for the growth of physical industry and national stability.
So how can worldwide access to free wireless connection become a reality? At a glance, Wi-Fi may seem cost-prohibitive, difficult to ensure blanket coverage with, and tricky to centralize. It’s true that a reliable network of physical routers would be tough to set up, especially with limits on each router’s range. However, the technology necessary for widespread wireless access already exists. Satellite internet already connects much of the world, and aerospace giant SpaceX’s plan to launch 800 low-orbit satellites for providing wireless coverage to rural areas was approved by the FCC in March 2018. The Google SkyBender project is also currently developing wireless networks implemented by drones, and Facebook’s Aquila drone project is attempting the same thing, but with a drone fueled by solar power. These new innovations may present sustainable and ultimately cost-effective methods of wireless access that their target rural markets can – and should – utilize.
Some countries around the world have already taken the plunge and become fully connected. According to Newsweek and British technology watchdog RottenWifi, reliable free public Wi-Fi currently covers most or all of a handful of nations, including Lithuania, Croatia, Estonia, Romania, Ireland, Denmark, and the UK. Many large cities, including Bangalore, Boston, Perth, Seoul, and Tel Aviv have taken similar steps. Since their connection, these places have emerged as local hubs of e-commerce and digital industry, as well as expanding their tourism industries and setting global records for connection speed. The enriching influence that national Wi-Fi coverage provided in these cases is absolutely worth replicating.
In countries like Estonia where all-encompassing free Wi-Fi has become a reality, it ultimately developed into a community project. A private team of supporters went around the country and encouraged shop owners, transit authorities, and other stakeholders to oversee small Wi-Fi networks, rebalancing their own operations budgets and sales prices to accommodate the new cost. This venture was ultimately successful and made each location more attractive to local residents, at no cost to the Wi-Fi committee itself.
In a similar vein, if the governments of countries with low Internet penetration – about 20% or less – created local or national wireless bureaus, a limited committee time commitment dedicated to fundraising or finding advertisers could replace direct funding as a means of government support. An advertiser might have their logo featured on a user’s wireless connection screen or show a short advertisement before logon, which users in developing countries may be inclined to tolerate if it meant they didn’t have to pay for Wi-Fi and could save their money for other necessities.
Countrywide programs geared towards the expansion of free Wi-Fi would also encourage the development of any other shortcomings in global communications access. Some 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity full-time, and 1-1.5 billion lack full-time phone service. Clearly, electricity and cellular service are more basic and integral steps towards full connectivity than Wi-Fi. However, if free Internet access became the long-term goal of multiple underdeveloped countries, then each government may feel compelled to prioritize electrical infrastructure in order to catch up to its newly connected neighbors. In addition, government projects and private corporations may become more likely to sponsor large, expensive electricity expansion efforts if they were motivated by the potential of getting their logos all over a later free Wi-Fi project or creating a more upmarket, connected consumer pool for their services.
The Internet is widely lauded as a platform for global communication and sharing of ideas. How can this ideal be upheld if its user base remains so restricted?
So what are we waiting for? Let’s connect our whole world – not just 54% of it.