Google, Facebook, and frikkin’ laser beams

Those wanting to connect the unconnected in Africa must be prepared to spend the time marching hand-in-hand with Africans into a more connected future. By Steve Song.

Steve-Song-180I have such a complicated relationship with Google and Facebook that I sometimes find it hard to write about them.  I don’t mean complicated in the sense of conflict of interest, although it is true that one of the organisations I do work for now receives funding from Google, so there is that, but what I am really talking about is complicated in terms of how I feel about their strategies for connecting the unconnected.

From an access perspective, Google and Facebook are digital organisations built on the economics of abundance. More and cheaper access to the Internet is great for their business. This puts them largely in opposition to traditional telecommunications companies built on scarcity models that seek to extract the maximum possible value for access.  This has historically been known as the “netheads vs bellheads” war and, honestly, if you had asked me in 1996 whether that battle would still be going on in 2014, I would have laughed.  Yet carry on it does and Google and Facebook represent a very positive force for change in the telecoms industry as all communication becomes digital in nature. This is great news in emerging markets where competition often struggles to flourish and what constitutes “affordable” access is much lower than in the industrialised world.

Google and Facebook also care about connecting the unconnected. Both companies are exploring various options for lowering the cost of access and reaching the unconnected. Whether you see that as altruistic, as corporate self-interest or, far more likely, as some combination is moot. They are directly engaged in trying to create cheaper and more pervasive access and that is a whole lot more than can be said of the likes of Apple, Amazon and a host of their wealthy Silicon Valley peers.

Google and Facebook have billions of dollars and plenty of very smart people, many of whom really care about the problem of access. This puts them in a unique position to be disruptive and innovative and to conceivably bring about a tectonic shift in affordable access to communication for the poor.

The challenge that organisations like Google and Facebook face is that they are used to being disruptive, innovative and shifting tectonics all over the place. Neither existed before 1999 and both now represent corporate and individual wealth that dwarfs the imagination. Even more significantly, they directly affect the daily lives of billions of people around the world. And they did it with … technology. So, if you’ve already done six impossible things before breakfast, it is hard to imagine that any problem can withstand some of the smartest and most innovative people in the world armed with apparently unlimited resources.

And on one level, that’s amazing. I love the sense of seeing any problem as solvable and the willingness to look way outside the box for solutions. It is a huge antidote to the apathy of previous generations to whom large-scale change seemed impossible. I also love the sense of simply not being willing to settle for incremental change, of looking for big answers.

The downside of this approach is that it brings an inevitable level of hubris. If you’ve created a product that is on the phone or desktop of half the world’s population, it cannot help but give you a sense of the power of technology as well as a sense of being able to make almost anything happen. And that can lead to a certain myopia about the nature of the problem that you are trying to solve.

Take for example Google and Facebook’s investments in high-flying solutions to connectivity. Google has invested in O3B, Project Loon, and now has purchased Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of high-altitude drones. Facebook has announced plans to explore satellites, drones, and, yes, laser beams to expand connectivity to the unconnected. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend watching this video from Internet.org (also embedded below) that features Facebook/Internet.org employee Yael Maguire talking about the challenge of connectivity and how to solve it. It is worth watching even just for the simple but articulate manner in which the technological challenges to access are communicated. Yael represents what excites me most about initiatives like Internet.org. He is smart, passionate about the problem, and has access to the means to do something about it.

Unfortunately, he also represents the downside. What barely gets mentioned in his talk are people, the people who represent the ecosystem of access: the system operators, service providers, regulators, policy makers, technicians and small business people who ultimately build the landscape of improved access. There is an implicit assumption that once the technological solution has been found, everything else will fall into place.

Part of the appeal of a satellite/balloon/drone approach to connectivity is the opportunity to perhaps bypass all of that and deliver connectivity directly to the consumer without having to address the messy problems of capacity-building, regulatory reform and development in general. It is both literally and metaphorically problematic. The fifteen thousand metre view inevitably occludes the details and complexities of what is happening on the ground. It is the same kind of thinking that is directly critiqued in Bill Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts, in which he argues against silver-bullet technological solutions to development challenges.

To both Google and Facebook’s credit, high-flying solutions are not their only approach to increasing affordable access. Google, in particular, is doing remarkable work on the ground, ranging from helping pioneer TV white spaces trials in Cape Town to setting up a metropolitan fibre network in Kampala in Uganda. And here’s the difference. In Cape Town and Kampala, Google works hand-in-hand with local organisations, building capacity and engagement. The projects are models that can be emulated and improved on in neighbouring countries. They are examples, ultimately, of Africans building next-generation solutions with the help of Google.

And that’s the issue really. Africa is a continent that is tired to the point of nausea of being done unto. If you want to connect the unconnected in Africa, then be prepared to spend the  time marching hand-in-hand with Africans into a more connected future. Don’t imagine you can just beam it down from a satellite. Real access is a partnership between the connector and the connectee.

And purely from a technological standpoint, I think there is a broad underestimation of the speed of growth of terrestrial fibre networks and the role that they will play in access in the future. A side project I have had for a couple of years is trying to map the growth of terrestrial fibre networks at AfTerFibre. So far, I have only captured a fraction of the actual fibre projects on the ground and what I am seeing is the same kind of explosive growth in terrestrial fibre that we have seen in undersea cables. This opens up new possibilities for terrestrial wireless solutions that may change the access landscape dramatically.

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  • Byron Will-Noel

    Great piece, and too right about it being a people problem as well as a tech problem.

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