Although the number of internet users is increasing by the second, according to Facebook – two thirds of the world is still not connected to the internet.
“Connecting the unconnected” has become a popular term, thrown about a lot in discussions and debates among telcos over the last few years. The three-word phase is a great motto for the huge challenge governments face in reaching under-served populations with fast and reliable broadband connectivity.
Certainly not just coined for serving developing nations, “connecting the unconnected” also refers to secluded and rural areas around the world, where inhabitants still have poor, or even no access.
Do we understand why?
A recent report from Telecoms.com stated that 15% of US citizens are still without any Internet access, and this figure has not decreased since 2013. More surprising was the fact that while some of this “unconnected” population may not have access available to them, some of them do but choose not to take advantage of it. In other words they do not want to be online – presenting a very different challenge to that of lack of access.
This resonates with a recent interview I carried out with Anna Easton, Sustainable Business Director at BT, who gave me some insight into the work they have been doing to encourage people online by demonstrating the benefits of doing so. Although most of the focus of “connecting the unconnected” reports out there concentrate on the technology innovations that can help to serve hard-to-reach areas, this other aspect is a vital part of ensuring sections of the population don’t miss out from the huge opportunities presented by broadband connectivity (such as education, health information and job opportunities to name a few).
Cost obviously plays a huge part in it, especially when it comes to trying to connect lower-income populations. It is a priority both for the telcos investing in the infrastructure, and those living in poverty who simply cannot afford internet subscriptions.
What solutions are out there?
For telcos, a significant part of the challenge does still lie in the practicalities and business models behind delivering superfast broadband to rural areas and developing nations. You may remember our blog post from last year that explored some the successful bidders of the UK’s £10 million innovation fund, designed to take superfast broadband to the most remote and hardest-to-reach places in the UK. Initiatives explored included wireless alternatives to fixed, and the deployment of more LTE small cells, using satellite broadband and wireless networks aggregators.
These initiatives are all determined to find a suitable solution to laying cables across vast landscapes and sparse, secluded areas, an impossible feat both economically and probably physically.
But it’s not just governments and telcos exploring these innovative methods. You’re probably already familiar with projects such as Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s internet.org. The social media giant’s initiative to connect an estimated 4 billion unconnected people hasn’t proved too popular among telcos, with many viewing it as simply another OTT scheme to siphon their profits. However, many will admit that the Connectivity Lab at Facebook looks pretty exciting, researching into a variety of technologies including “high-altitude long-endurance planes, satellites and lasers”.
What do telcos need to know?
The obvious incentive for telcos and network owners to invest in rural broadband is the untapped revenue potential presented by new customers (Cisco predict a whopping $14.4 trillion is at stake). Also, by reaching these unconnected communities, telcos have the power to improve socioeconomic development and create the next generation of customers.
Connecting the Unconnected has been thrown into the spotlight at Broadband World Forum this year. With discussions happening throughout the show, we will be covering everything on the policy, regulatory and technologies challenges to the drive to provide affordable internet for all.
The conference will look to understand the priorities and challenges behind affordable internet for countries worldwide. Meanwhile, for exhibition visitors, the Access Innovation Zone will host sessions on “making the business case for rural broadband”.
Bill Murphy, MD, Next-Generation Access, BT
Owino Harrison, CTO, Parliamentary Service Commission, Nairobi
Rajendra Bahuguna, Chairman & Managing Director, RailTel Corporation, India
Dave Salam, Director of Network Strategy, EE
Basel Dalloul, CEO, Noor Group, Egypt
Phil Roberts, Lead Implementation Manager, DCMS BDUK
Anna Easton, Sustainable Business Director, BT
Saad Al Kahtani, Broadband Expert, UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development