One day in 2021, someone on the planet may become the fifth billionth Internet user. When this happens we will not receive any notifications, no flags will be raised and no fireworks will be fired. Humanity will simply achieve another achievement in connecting all citizens to the services that most of us underestimate: including the ability to read this article.
But as anyone who has studied digital segregation will tell you, connecting the remaining 2.8 billion people (of the estimated 7.8 billion people on Earth) to the Internet will be the most difficult task. It was only recently that the big idea of one of the big tech companies was put aside to make this happen, but on the other hand, two of the richest people in the world believe that this can still be achieved through space approaches.
As of December 31, 2020, the number of approved Internet users on the planet was 4.94 billion, according to a wealth of data collected by the United Nations, Nielsen Online, and telecommunications companies around the world. This means that only 50 million users are left until the magic number of 5 billion users, which in other words will be equivalent to 64% of the world’s population. In a more conservative statistic in October 2020, we heard that 4.66 billion people had access to the Internet. The Covid-19 pandemic has naturally made the data collection process more difficult. But in general, most experts agree that we have been able to connect 60% of the world’s population to the Internet.
Humanity can certainly be proud of this figure. It is only two years since the United Nations announced that 50% of the world’s population, or 3.9 billion people, will soon have access to the Internet. Now the same number has increased dramatically and many people are actively using social networks every month, other parts of the Internet to stay.
You might think that since the planet’s population continues to grow – and is likely to reach 8 billion this decade – our goal will be to make a foolish effort to bring all people online. You might think that the number of people growing faster than the number of people online is growing. But such a thing is not true. The world’s population is growing by about 1 percent each year, and this is a rate that is steadily declining. According to Yale University, 81 million people are now added to the planet’s population annually, which is less than the total population of Iran.
On the other hand, the world had 319 million new Internet users in 2020 (of course, this is a number that we know about despite the pandemic, and the real number may be higher). This number is approximately equal to the total population of the United States. At this rate, if 81 million people are added to the population each year, all the people of the earth will be able to connect to the Internet within the next 12 years. In theory, by 2033, there will be no such thing as digital isolation.
Of course, no one expects us to stick to these rates. The growth rate looks set to slow, as does the rate of electricity supply to the remaining 800 million people. But exactly how close can we get to achieving this goal? And can a new technology surprise us by increasing the growth rate of Internet access?
The next 2.8 billion people
It should come as no surprise that some countries have fewer online footprints than others, and this happens for a variety of reasons. North Korea is the world’s most disconnected country from the Internet, and none of its 25 million citizens have access to the Internet. War-torn South Sudan and heavily militarized Eritrea are next in line. According to the World Economic Forum, only 2% of the two countries’ population is online.
In terms of net figures, India (with 685 million) and China (582 million) have the highest number of offline users, at 50 and 41, respectively. To put it another way, China and India alone account for half of the world’s offline users.
But these figures do not paint a complete picture. India has made internet access very fast: in 2019 alone, 128 million Indians lost their internet access. Now we have to wait and see how many people in India gained access to the Internet during the 2020 pandemic or lost that advantage – after all, Covid-19 would put a large portion of India’s population below the poverty line. But at the same time, one can be optimistic: China recently announced that 85 million Chinese have become Internet users since the pandemic began. Of course, their internet is severely censored, but this is not covered in this article.
In percentage terms, the most significant recent growth has been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which grew by 122 percent in 2019, largely thanks to the Internet Society, a non-profit network of volunteers from around the world committed to online The world has done. The Internet Society has donated an Internet Exchange Point (or IXP for short) to the Congo, which is an important infrastructure but not absolutely necessary for online users. However, IXP can greatly reduce the costs of Internet service providers and enable them to accelerate.
The more IXPs we build, the more users will find out about the Internet. The Internet Society plans to use the technology to supply 80 percent of Africa’s total Internet traffic within the continent and reduce reliance on the rest of the world.
From Silicon Valley to the world
The fact that Facebook has partnered with the Internet Society to supply IXPs in Africa brings us to an important fact. Silicon Valley really wants to make everyone on earth online, even the 700 million people who now live in extreme poverty. This is not because of the pure heart of Silicon Valley companies, but because they will be able to monitor the online behavior of more people and have more data to sell to advertisers.
This was one of the reasons why Google spent a decade trying on projects that seemed so weird. With Project Loon, Google built high-altitude balloons that flew over rural and remote areas in the form of Wi-Fi hotspots. Of course, this project faced many problems from the beginning, and for example, a test flight in Sri Lanka in 2016, led to the fall of a balloon on a tea farm. That’s how Google finally ended Project Loon in January 2021. “It turns out that the path to business continuity is longer and more risky than we expected,” said Straw Teller, CEO of Google X.
One of Loon’s biggest customers was Telkom Kenya, which discontinued its balloon service in March. The company says it will instead use traditional 4G towers to continue serving Loon’s former customers.
This does not mean that Google has given up its dream of universal Internet access. Project Taara was launched in November and is being tested in Kenya. Taraa uses light transmission to provide Internet signals: You can think of something like a fiber optic cable, but without the cable. One Taraa hardware unit can transmit bandwidth of 20 Gbps to another unit within 20 km if it has an unobstructed line of sight. Google said in a statement to Taara that the bandwidth “would be enough for hundreds of users to watch YouTube videos at the same time” and that it would be commercially viable for Google.
Taara is still an ambitious project, and it remains to be seen whether it will continue to grow fast enough to bring the remaining 2.8 million users online over the next decade. But Google’s new solution is likely to enter into close competition with Ilan Mask’s space Internet project soon.
Starlink is the name of SpaceX’s satellite internet service, which is currently in beta and will officially launch later this year. By the end of February 2021, SpaceX rockets had launched 1,265 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, most of which had been launched over the past year. Starlink states in its documentation that it will send a total of about 42,000 satellites into space, which will be more than enough to cover the entire earth with Internet service.
It should be noted that Jeff Bezos – the biggest competitor in all things space – is also working on a similar satellite Internet service called Project Jupiter. Amazon service is expected to be faster than Starlink (400 Gbps, which will be enough to stream 4K content), and its satellites will have antennas one-third the size of Starlink antennas, making them easier to produce. So far, however, Amazon has been able to obtain permission to send only 3,200 satellites from the US Federal Communications Commission, and the cost to users will not be known. In any case, Amazon clearly wants to bring more people online across the globe to increase its retail sales.
Technical challenges remain strong. Satellite Internet services are in trouble in bad weather, and thanks to climate change in recent years, this is one of the biggest risks of SpaceX and Amazon. SpaceX is now responding to astronomers’ criticism that the satellites are causing light pollution in space and equipping their satellites with non-reflective coating, but in any case it can still be criticized that Ilan Mask has a nightmare in terms of waste. They create a space. Starlink’s top speed of 150 Mbps is not as fast as fiber-optic cables, but as of this writing, Mask promises to double that speed by the end of 2021.
Of course, 150 Mbps will suffice for the 2.8 billion people left without the Internet. But the other point is that covering the whole earth with satellite signals is not going to guarantee their access to the Internet, especially since Starlink is looking to make a profit and raise the necessary funds to pave its way to Mars. Starlink now retails for $ 99 a month. This is not a good situation for the 770 million people on earth who earn less than $ 2 a day.
It would make sense for Ilan Mask to lower the Starlink subscription price from place to place in order to expand the dimensions of the project more quickly. He has already received $ 885 million in funding from the Federal Communications Commission, promising to deliver satellite services to the farthest reaches of the United States. (To explain, 10% of Americans say they do not use the Internet at all, which is probably because 21 million Americans do not have access to broadband Internet at all).
Starlink is also trying to get into the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, which provides a $ 9.25 subsidy to low-income households in need of the Internet. This subsidy will not make sense at all if SpaceX does not reach pricing far below $ 99 per month.
Even from a completely commercial and inhumane point of view, there are benefits to losing out on selling services to low-income customers. The public will look at Ilan Mask or Jeff Bezos through the eyes of billionaire prophets who have solved the world’s Internet problem, and there is a lot of propaganda potential in this.
But the most likely scenario is that to get the remaining 2.8 billion people online, we need to use a strategy that incorporates all of the solutions outlined above. We now need competitive pricing between Internet service providers, massive government investments and subsidies, the deep involvement of NGOs, and the mass implementation of ambitious technologies such as Taara and Starlink alongside traditional telecommunications towers. If all goes well, it is not far-fetched to say that by 2035 the entire planet will have access to the Internet. This means that we will have access to the Internet everywhere before we completely eradicate extreme poverty.