Getting connected: People use balloons, the sun and white space to get online

The 2013 launch of Google’s Project Loon in Christchurch, New Zealand (Courtesy of “I used a nikon”/Flickr)

“A world without Internet would be like a world without light,” says a resident of Walgak in South Sudan, one of the most remote and impoverished places on Earth.

Millions of people worldwide — most of them in developed countries — share that feeling. But for the Walgaks of the world, the Internet is more than a convenience — it is a lifeline. Unfortunately, for the 60 percent of the world’s population who are not connected, the Internet remains a dream.

Over the past 20 years, the Internet has become so vital to commerce and communications that countries without Internet access risk falling even further behind economically and socially. But obtaining Internet access is “a big challenge,” says Vinton Cerf, a “father of the Internet” and Google’s chief Internet evangelist. “And it’s turning out to be not so easy to get everybody to build the infrastructure that’s needed,” he told Wired magazine in 2012.

A room with a view and Internet link connecting Pabbo and Gulu in Uganda (Courtesy photo)

Fortunately, some developing countries are making strides in closing the digital divide. An uptick in adoption of mobile technologies in Africa and other parts of the world helps. But it’s not enough. That is why private companies, nongovernmental organizations and governments are collaborating to get the developing world online.

From here to worldwide connectivity

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State launched the Global Connect Initiative (GCI), an effort to bring 1.5 billion additional people online by 2020 through partnerships among multilateral institutions, governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. The initiative calls for more than building Internet infrastructure where none exists now.

“We intend to partner with interested countries to develop tailor-made strategies to create the right enabling environments,” said Catherine Novelli, under secretary of state, at the September 27 GCI launch ceremony. “These policies will not only spur connectivity, but also entrepreneurship, cross-border information flows, and open and competitive marketplaces.”

The initiative will build on efforts pioneered by a number of high-tech giants.

Google has built a high-speed, fiber-optic Internet network in Kampala, Uganda. In Australia, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the company has partnered with local firms to deliver connectivity to remote areas via helium balloons.

Two companies — SpaceX and WorldVu Satellites — pursue separate plans to beam the Internet from space. They plan to launch constellations of small satellites that would send high-speed Internet signals to all regions of the world, no matter how remote.

Microsoft promotes projects to transmit Internet signals via unused portions of the television broadcast spectrum called white spaces. For example, in partnership with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), it provides financing to Mawingu Networks to build solar-powered Internet access stations across rural Kenya.

OPIC also has offered financing for the development of a network of telecommunications towers across Burma and a private-sector venture designed to connect to the Internet millions of Kenyans.

On the Google campus in São Paulo, Brazil, the robot is online too. (Courtesy photo)

As more people are connected, the appreciation for the Internet only grows.

“I don’t think I can survive without it,” says a Nigerian user on a Internet forum. The first time he went online, it felt like “a river of dreams.”

GCI and other efforts will allow millions of more people to swim in that river.