In many places around the world, Internet connectivity is an almost unheard-of luxury. Roughly 4 billion people have no access to the web. Much of India doesn’t even have functioning lavatories, public or private. Much of the Third World went straight to mobile phones and never developed a copper wire infrastructure, which makes delivering Internet at reasonable speed hard and expensive. What to do?
The answer from two of our online overlords came into closer focus this week when Facebook revealed their Internet drone and Google announced that it was working with Madagascar for that island state to be the first customer for its balloon based platform, Project Loon. In both cases, the idea is to get a platform high enough to beam a laser-based Internet signal to Earth, which can then be distributed through a network of repeating towers to remote towns and villages.
Both projects have a pretty high gee-whiz factor. The Facebook drone has the wingspan of a 737 and in theory, will be able to deliver “tens of Gigabits per second” from twice the height at which a 737 would normally fly. It’s solar powered and pretty much Star Wars awesome. The Loon is a little more pedestrian, but still way cool. Think microwave tower suspended under a Zeppelin.
In principle, all this tech applied to bring the Internet to billions of poor people is a laudable, perhaps noble idea. Communication brings people together. Having access to the world anywhere in the world no matter your status is surely a good thing? But so is clean water, childhood immunization, education for girls and women, the end to genital mutilation, universal health care and contraception…the list goes on.
Whether you like Bill Gates or not, you have to grant that he and his wife have almost single-handedly taken on some of the greatest curses of the poorest people in our world and made a huge difference. They have pretty much eliminated the horrific parasite Guinea Worm, and they are closing in on a bunch of other diseases which plague the world’s poor. They are doing this with well-managed grants; they have donated over $30 Billion so far. I have no idea how many Loons or drones you could get for $30 Billion —a few I’m guessing — but how about we eliminate Malaria first?
The sad fact is that to the narcissistic tech wonders who rule Silicon Valley, Drones and Loons are cool. Malaria, not so much. How about we do the Loons and Drones, but we donate an equal amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and help them give a reasonable standard of life to the future customers of those Wi-Fi services?