Whether it’s good business to expand their market, or pure-hearted altruism, America’s tech giants are intent on bridging the global digital divide. In August, Facebook and six phone companies announced Internet.org, which is supposed to bring affordable access to everyone. Internet.org is now part of an alliance sponsored by Silicon Valley heavyweights, which plans to bring broadband to the developing at a price that people there can afford.
Google, the philanthropic investment firm Omidyar, UK Aid, and US Aid are the global sponsors of the newly-formed Alliance For Affordable Internet (A4AI). Other members of the alliance from the private sector, include Facebook, Yahoo!, Cisco, Microsoft, and Intel. Several nonprofit organizations like World Wide Web foundation are involved, along with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the US State Department.
As she was wrapping up her tenure as Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton was hyping A4AI. “We’re going to help the next billion people come online,” Clinton said during her final press conference in February.
The A4AI aims to bring that “next billion” online with broadband internet at an affordable rate. The alliance has three guiding principles that make its mission fairly clear: 1. Internet freedom and the right to assemble must be protected. 2. Access to the internet is an enabler of economic growth and 3. Open markets are the best way to lower costs and drive innovation.
“A4AI has a specific goal in mind: to reach the UN Broadband Commission target of entry-level broadband access priced at less than 5% of monthly income worldwide. (According to the ITU, households in the developing world pay roughly 30% of monthly income for a fixed connection, so there’s a lot of work to do.),” said Jennifer Haroon, in a blog post on Google’s Public Policy Site.
To that end, the public-private alliance is looking to effect change starting first with influencing policy. According to their website’s FAQ page, “the best technologies in the world can’t drive change if monopolies or regressive policies prevent them from being implemented. Changes to policy can deliver impressive results, fast.”
Even if the market is supposed to drive innovation and lower prices, A4AI acknowledges the role that governments will have to play, especially in areas that the market just won’t reach. One of A4AI’s “Best Practices,” included the administration of a fund to ensure that universal service goals are met, even in remote or difficult to reach areas.
“I’m glad they acknowledged the need for universal service fund,” said John Randall, of the Roosevelt Institute. Randall is the program manager of Roosevelt Institute’s telecommunications equality project, which deals with infrastructure and digital divide issues.
Randall called the alliance very interesting and was impressed with the best practices, but for one thing: One goal is to have no infrastructure owned by any government. While state-owned infrastructure might seem like it enables rogue governments, rest assured that rogue governments don’t need to own anything to shut the internet off, as was demonstrated in Egypt in January 2011. Randall explained, however, that there was an upside to government intervention in infrastructure.
“In some situations where markets have failed to provide adequate infrastructure, having infrastructure that is government-owned can be a good thing because it frees the infrastructure provider from market considerations,” Randall said. “Instead of chasing the bottom line they can chase an externality that allows more people into the marketplace.”
This is the great, untapped marketplace. While 77 percent of the developed world uses the internet, only 31 percent of the developing world does. If you break it up by continent, only 16 percent of people in Africa are online, which is why A4AI will initially concentrate its efforts in three markets in Africa before expanding to cover “at least 12 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.”
By the alliance's reasoning, outdated policy is what's holding those countries back from the digital age. Maybe with the money and savvy of its constituents behind it, including the British and American governments, the Alliance for Affordable Internet will make the large swaths of the globe, which the market has heretofore ignored, attractive and open for business.