Free or nearly free internet access can be regarded as vital to the development of a country and its people. How feasible would it be? Would the benefits outweigh the costs?
Free internet access projects are emerging globally in terms of free wi-fi hotspots in larger cities. Many places like restaurants have been offering for years now free internet access as a service to their customers. These projects are mostly local initiatives or initiated by individual companies.
What if the scale of such projects would be enlarged by governments with the aim of eventually providing their entire population with free or nearly free internet access?Obviously the cost of such infrastructural projects would be enormous.
Free internet would require investments in infrastructure on the level that only governments can afford.
Yet there are ways to cover such costs by means of ‘free’ business models or by what I would consider ‘nearly free’ methods of limiting bandwidth and servicing ads in your phone’s browser of what would constitute only mild discomfort to the users.
With regard to Africa, only 3 major internet backbones currently cover an entire continent. These backbones emerge from the seas surrounding the continent originating from Brazil, Europe and India. There is no direct connection to the US and China, two major internet players and more over there are no cross-continent backbones. This lack of interconnectivity is really hampering Africa’s prospects, but that is another topic.
Free internet access may well be considered Utopian if the current data capacity does not match the increase in demand that is to be expected.
Governments should consider this as an investment in their country and more importantly their people, in particular future generations.
Yes there would be abuse but that is the case with any new development an no reason to not consider such an investment. There are also ways to combat or prevent such abuse.
Then there is the economy of scales. One cannot roll out free internet, or paid internet for that matter, over vast areas at once. In Europe the construction of internet infrastructure started in the late 90’s and has currently reached almost complete coverage with the exception of some remote areas. Internet pricing has steadily decreased while overall performance and reliability have increased.
The development of an all-encompassing internet infrastructure is a long term effort for sure.
In countries like Nigeria, Kenya, South-Africa or any other for that matter such an infrastructural endeavour would resemble the Apollo Moon program of the 1960's USA or the Marshall plan of late 40's Germany but the impact it would make would arguably be similar.
Access, performance, availability and reliability are key attributes where internet is concerned, whether free or not.
When an entire nation is involved a lot can happen. I would argue it would propel such a nation forward into the future.
Feasible free access internet would first have to be introduced in the large population centres which in the case of for instance Lagos, Nairobi or Johannesburg would nevertheless imply a tremendous effort in terms of expenditure and effort.
It could however also introduce interesting side effects. For instance such a free access internet network should not rely on an unstable electrical grid, but should instead utilize solar power or wind energy generators.
New companies and industries would emerge in the manufacture and maintenance of such technology. Yet, the technologies are readily available and proven. Any surplus energy generated could be directed back to the grid which would alleviate supply issues on that side.
Yes, Internet Service Providers (ISP) and telecommunication companies would suffer from it. They should therefore be involved in such a program. Not set aside. They would have to change or adjust their business model. Not solely make money from data, but also from services that involve for instance the construction and maintenance of such a free access network.
Free yet profitable business models are already in existence.
For instance in Open Source software development, which started in the 70’s with the development of Linux. The vast majority of websites globally present today are managed with Open Source software at their core.
At the core of the Open Source business model lies the fact that cost/profit calculations are not based on the software - it is free - but on the knowledge & expertise, the effort & time required to produce, program, software appliances. Such a business model could serve as a template for a Free Internet business model.
Open Source has another benefit. A low entry level.
Anyone with the proper skill set can establish a business in an industry that is no longer controlled and dominated by a few giant corporations. In fact software molochs like Apple and Microsoft have finally embraced Open Source - after decades of struggle - as a pool from which to launch new ideas, start-up companies and as a talent scout databank.
It is also worthwhile to look at other projects in other industries elsewhere.
For instance in London, UK, the now sprawling financial services industry is primarily located at the Docklands, once a wasteland from a previous industrial era and ravaged by the scars of war.
Another example from the city of Eindhoven, Netherlands, a city on the decline once the omnipresent Philips corporation announced to move their headquarters and strip down its activities. Decades later this city now features the world renowned ‘Dutch Design Academy’ and a High Tech Campus neatly located next to the ASML and NXP factories and laboratories, some of the worlds largest computer chip makers.
This was only possible due to the efforts of (local) government, enterprises, higher education academies and a people that understood the need to change.
Another aspect that needs to be addressed is the safeguard of ‘net neutrality’. Free access means free to all. It requires transparency.
No region, city or municipality can be favoured over another in terms of access and performance. The same applies to the supply side of the equation in which companies, organisations, media companies or political parties are equally enabled to offer their content and broadcast their message to the information hungry masses.
The stakes of such a program surpass that of individual profit. The benefit and needs of the many always outweigh that of the few.
If you believe you will fail, you will. If you believe you can win, you have a chance in doing so.