A contribution by Chanil N. De Silva; Policy Director at Nouveau Inc.
High-speed Internet had in the past been associated with affluence, while many households used dial-up modems and many more had no Internet access at all. Over time, the Internet – initially developed as a defense resource – has become a driving force behind education, business, and daily life. To a child growing up in suburbia today, broadband is just part of life; perhaps they could not even imagine life without it. However, for many around the world (and in parts of the U.S.), reality is very different.
Almost 53 percent of the world’s population does not have Internet access – hard to believe in today’s highly interconnected world. More surprising, perhaps, is that 58 percent of the world’s Internet users are in Asia and Africa. According to a recent UN Broadband Commission report, the United States ranks 24th in the world in household broadband penetration. As of 2013, only 73.4 percent of U.S. households had high-speed Internet, leaving more than 25 percent of the country – a staggering 80 million people – without it.
Things are looking up. Globally, governments and private sector entities are realizing the importance of Internet access and taking initiative to expand it. In India, for example, Facebook collaborated with six other companies on the internet.org initiative. This initiative provides basic Internet access to more than a billion people to access education, health, and job related websites free of charge. Internet.org is a part of a larger effort by Facebook, which has already provided Internet access to 150 million people in Africa and Asia.
India’s southern neighbor, Sri Lanka, signed an agreement with Google’s Project Loon in July 2015 and will be the first country in the world to have universal internet access by March 2016. The country of 26 million people will buy a 25 percent stake in the joint-venture project. The Google project aspires to provide nationwide affordable high-speed Wi-Fi Internet access through the use of strategically placed high altitude balloons, which would replace traditional Internet infrastructure.
In Africa, “The BRCK” is causing a stir. The company, devoted to increasing connectivity in the African region and providing Internet and telecommunications access to the most rural parts of the world, has come up with a rugged, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device. This technological breakthrough has the potential to spread the reach of the Internet to the farthest corners of the world.
While this Internet Renaissance is taking place around the world, expansion of access in America appears to have stalled. Despite a serious lack of access in certain rural areas, telecommunications and High-speed Internet infrastructure have been placed on the backburner, providing the opportunity for other countries to simply whizz past. It isn’t surprising then, that the UN Broadband Commission’s report states that as of 2013 the number of broadband users in the developing world have exceeded the number of broadband uses in America. From personal experience, I recall arriving in America in 2009 and being annoyed that I did not have access to 3G mobile Internet service, which had been in use in my native country of Sri Lanka since 2007. I was also disappointed once again when I gained 4G access 2 years later than my relatives in Colombo.
The world is becoming exceedingly interconnected. It is essential that America focus on investing in and upgrading its current telecommunications infrastructure. Access to the internet brings with it increased levels of education, health, and a higher standard of living, all of which contribute to a country’s competitiveness on the world stage. High-speed Internet is no longer a luxury in many places and is turning into a freely available resource. As providers look to expand access to new markets in the U.S., policy-makers should reconsider any policies that impede further high-speed Internet expansion and ensure that America remains on the forefront of the online revolution.