Why we need new connectivity fromlow Earth orbit and the stratosphere

January 7, 2018

A look at the persisting digital divide and how telecommunication networks from above promise to fully bring the 4 billion without connectivity into the digital fold.

Those of us in the developed world have become so reliant on ubiquitous internet connectivity that we are already becoming quite blasé about it. In fact, there is a growing trend to use our digital freedoms and privileges to criticize the internet and focus increasingly only on its downsides.

But to do so is to overlook the holistic benefits that full connectivity can bring. We should be directing our focus on the developing world and how access brings innumerable benefits to countries, economies and individuals. And not just economic benefits but benefits educationally, medically, politically and socially.

The facts and figures are stark and indisputable.


Only 47% of the world’s 7.3 billion people have access to the internet


Figures from the International Telecommunication Union, from 2017, show that of the world’s 7.3 billion population, 47% have access to the internet. But on closer examination, the figures break down to reveal that 81% of users in the developed world have internet access compared to only 40% in the developing world.

The connected world: not quite the world map we are used to seeing…

More encouragingly – or not, depending on which side of the ‘Internet Good/Internet Bad’ argument you sit – 70% of the world’s youth (ages 15-24) are online in some form or another.

But the figures are important for highlighting the various disparities in internet access: to join disparities in ages online and the developed vs. developing world inequality, one can add that more men than women are online.

And the effects?

A wide-ranging report on internet access in the developing world from Deloitte in 2014 reported on how the internet can encourage access to secondary and tertiary education. Barriers to both levels of education stem not just from tuition costs but also from the opportunity cost of attending school instead of working.

“Online courses offer the affordability and flexibility that many students in the developing world need. Online courses on a variety of topics are now offered by a number of institutions and leading universities, which can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection, making affordable internet access an important component of sharing the benefits of higher education.”

Deloitte goes on to state that the internet also provides numerous resources for teachers, including access to professional development courses.

“As developing countries struggle to improve the quality of their educational systems in a cost-effective way, it is recognized that the use of ICT to support teachers and students could play a major role: evidence from Kenya and India suggest that having an additional teacher helps to improve educational performance, with students in schools with an extra contract teacher performing better than comparator schools.”

Internet-enabled devices are already transforming the way healthcare professionals operate in developing countries by allowing remote diagnosis and more efficient forms of treatment.

“Patient information is sent to hospitals via mobile and internet applications, thus saving travel time and service costs and substantially improving access to healthcare, especially for rural populations. The internet complements and improves existing medical facilities. Health workers can connect a microscope to a mobile phone with a camera, take pictures of microscope images and send them to a central server, which clinicians can access to make diagnosis of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.”

The report further adds that the monitoring of illnesses can also be enhanced by mobile and internet applications which are designed to remind patients of their treatments and control the distribution of medicine stocks.


Access to the internet improves health outcomes in lesser-developed countries


A paper from Darrell West, of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, followed up on these issues in a publication on the digital divide in the developing world.

West explains how doctors in the developing world can use mobile devices to find out which drugs are most effective for certain illnesses, check for drug interaction effects, and access a database that will tell them whether particular medications are counterfeit.

He adds that increasingly healthcare providers are using remote monitoring devices to check vital signs. Patients who live a great distance from treatment centers can electronically transmit health information to physicians, who can let them know if they have abnormal readings. This helps developing countries deal with healthcare disparities between rural and urban areas and brings expert diagnosis even to physically remote locations.

The internet’s role in civil society cannot be overemphasized either. One need only flick through the latest newspaper or switch on the evening news to be aware of how the internet is changing the nature of political engagement in the developed world, often not necessarily for the better.

But the ability to more widely communicate ideas and issues has incredible potential to totally transform political participation in the developing world.

A United Nations’ Economic and Social Council report from 2013 summarized the myriad benefits of internet access on the developing world’s polities thus:

“Bloggers have emerged as the front lines of investigative and activist political advocates in many countries, while traditional journalism has extended its reach by online reporting. Political parties and other organizations have vastly more resources to connect with and influence voters, contributors, as well as politicians and government agencies. The presence of so many outside information sources also helps reinforce pressure on government itself to provide greater openness and transparency, to allow access to all manner of internal records and data, to investigate and publicize questionable practices and to inform citizens in a politically neutral manner. ICT – and especially social media – have also played a pivotal role in activist movements, contributing to political reforms around the world.”

West states in his 2015 paper that “…one of the biggest challenges in a disconnected world is getting people from different cultures and backgrounds to understand one another. It is easy in that situation for mistrust and intolerance to proliferate when people do not understand each other or have opportunities to communicate.”

Experiences on Twitter and Facebook may lead us in the developed world to wince at such idealism but we must not view the differences in the developing world through the narrow prism of our own, very particular, experiences.

Access to ubiquitous broadband internet fires – above all else – economic growth. And economic growth underpins all of the above benefits.

One last extract from the Deloitte study:

“…extending internet access to levels seen in developed countries today means that long run productivity could be enhanced by as much as 25% in developing countries. [We] estimate that the resulting economic activity could generate $2.2 trillion in additional GDP, a 72% increase in the GDP growth rate, and more than 140 million new jobs.”

So the benefits are clear to see. But the practical and financial constraints in physically laying fiber-optic cable are holding back 100% connectivity. It is understandable when one looks at the business case for such connection: it is simply way too expensive. No matter how altruistic some companies’ aims and dreams the stark reality of finance inevitably – and understandably – prevents full connectivity.


The internet delivered from the skies


But a solution is in the offing. New pioneers and new technologists are looking to the skies and space to deliver internet connectivity. Constellations of satellites and high-altitude platforms (such as drones and UAVs) are being designed to provide a canopy of connection above the areas where it is most needed.

These new constellations promise to totally revolutionize the nature of internet connectivity and bring with them numerous benefits not just for the under-served and unconnected but also in areas such as Earth observation, energy monitoring, and rural and mobile connectivity.

And what do these constellations look like? And who is building them? We’ll look at these new constellations in more detail in our next two blog posts.