Saturday, October 01, 2011

Internet for All?

Recently, I stumbled upon a website called "A Human Right". It begins with the following screen:

"If you can read this you are very lucky."

On the website, they say that "Our vision is to connect all people by creating and stewarding a freely available decentralized global system of communication." Basically, they want to do something about the fact that five billion people do not have access to the internet; to that end, their latest initiative is to try and "buy a satellite and grant internet access to millions."

It's a simple enough concept. Access to information is a basic human right; the Internet is the single greatest hub of information. Put the two together: give access to the Internet to billions, using satellite technology.

As much as I admire the spirit of this enterprise, I fear they are misguided, on two fronts. One is the issue of language, and the other is that of technical feasibility.




Let me deal with the technical feasibility first. Essentially, they want to hand out modems that enable two-way internet connection via satellites. Wikipedia tells me that such modems cost between USD600~2,000. Portable ones cost even more, at between USD1,000~4,000 each. Notwithstanding the issues with lag and maximum bandwidth, this satellite system just doesn't scale. Also, it is too centralized. Under the above model, all of the internet traffic still has to go through a handful of satellites. I will come back to this point later.

Coming back to the language issue: let me ask the question, "Does it have to be the Internet?" Let me explain.

On the website they cite the following statistics:
  • 83% of the world can read 
  • 80% of the world has access to electricity 
  • Only 28.7 % of the world’s population has access to the internet
  • Only 4.6% of the world’s population has access to broadband internet
To this I would add: Only 14% of the world's population speak English as their first language.


Let me talk a little bit about Korea. Google is not the most popular search engine in Korea. In fact, it isn't in many parts of the world. China has Baidu. Japan has Yahoo. And Korea? Korea has Naver. Koreans choose Naver over Google for many reasons. One of them is that of language. Although the Korean version of Google (google.co.kr) is pretty good, it just has too much English text. The fact is, although most Koreans have been learning English since junior high, they feel they are still bad at it and so feel very stressed if they have to use it. Which means... they avoid English as much as they can. Here, I'm not talking about the average Joe in Korea. I'm talking about my work colleagues: people with postgraduate degrees who work in engineering sectors, in large companies such as LG and Samsung. These are educated people: but they still have a fear (or distaste?) of English.


Let's picture for a moment a typical boy in rural Tanzania. He's belongs to the Chaga tribe, and his parents have taught him well. He speaks the following languages: his mother-tongue is the vunjo language (the tribe-language), and he is quite fluent in Swahili, which is the de-facto lingua franca in East Africa. In addition to these, he can speak a few words of pidgin English.


Now, to him, what good is the Internet, when more than 60% of its contents are either in English, Chinese, German, Japanese, or Korean? Apart from the Swahili Wikipedia, which currently has 21,000 articles and growing, how much use will the rest of the Wikipedia see in a realistic setting?


What I am trying to say is the following: Rather than a Super-man like 'beam down from the sky' approach, should we instead aim for a more relevant "Internet as a natural growth of local communication networks"? When I see initiatives like A Human Right, I get the impression that they pictured themselves in the middle of the Sahara desert with a smartphone in hand and asked: wouldn't it be nice to be able to connect to the Internet even from such a remote location? 


The Egypt crisis, cited by A Human Right to support its cause, actually works against it. Sure, taking a satellite down requires an act of war, but that didn't stop people in the past. What we need is a more robust, distributed and de-centralized a solution. 

My suggestion? Forget about delivering the whole Internet to the people of developing nations; instead, enable them to connect to each other first. Focus on making it possible for them to communicate via voice and text and tweets. Make the system entirely open, decentralized, and modular. It's how the Internet was meant to be. What I am describing above is entirely possible at the current level of technology, and much more so with the advent of super Wifi open mesh networks. A network of always-connected mobile devices that all act as servers, routers, nodes, and clients. A robust wireless mesh network connection with built in redundancy. Think about it: text-based SMS and tweeting services on such a network will soon evolve into group-chats and forums, which will in turn evolve into wikipedia-like repositories of knowledge and information that is pertinent to the end-user, and in a language that they can understand.
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