Living in an urban American city and enjoying Internet access from all of my devices, and my own personal wireless network at home, it's easy to take for granted how rare that kind of accessibility is on a global scale. The World Wide Web is, in reality, anything but.
While plenty of Americans can't imagine life without the convenience of Internet access, there are still large pockets of rural America without any connectivity. And beyond the borders of the U.S., there are billions of people in underdeveloped countries who can't even conceive what a difference the Internet could make to their lives.
In locations where daily concerns include clean water, sturdy shelter, and other fundamentals of survival, it can seem counterintuitive to focus on bringing those people the wonders of Google and CandyCrush. But, as we all know, there's more to the Internet than entertainment and trivia. In fact, just as the proliferation of the telephone helped bring many current advanced countries into a new era, online access can bring underdeveloped nations into the 21st century.
Why Online Connectivity Matters
It can be difficult to quantify the impact of online connectivity, but beyond access to the latest funny cat video, is a distinct economic impact. "Forbes" reported that simply providing mobile phone access to an additional 10 percent of the population in a developing country leads to an extra 0.5 percent growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year. Connectivity opens both educational and employment opportunities that can't be accessed any other way.
Such significant results come from the technological snowball effect that increasing communication is the key to adopting additional technological advancements. Connecting developing countries to one another and the greater world makes them part of a global community. In the same way, expanding connectivity to isolated areas of rural America improves the general quality of life and provides lifelines, employment opportunities, and support previously unavailable.
Beyond direct economic impact, there are other ways the Internet helps make the world a better place. From mobilizing volunteers to improving education and making information accessible to all, online connectivity makes it easier for individuals, organizations, and companies to make a positive difference across the globe.
Who Is Leading the Charge?
It's not surprising that the organizations championing a true world wide web are not primarily government-based. Non-profit organizations and corporations are taking up the mantle and pushing to provide isolated people, both in America and abroad, with the technological connectivity to make their lives better.
At the forefront are the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and Internet.org by Facebook. Both organizations have a mission to make online access affordable and accessible. A4AI partners with governments, non-profits, and other companies to change the climate of policy and regulation to enable delivery of open broadband markets. Internet.org is working to connect the two-thirds of the world without Internet access through bringing together non-profits, local communities, and technology leaders.
Individual corporations are also getting in the game, most notably Google. In addition to their quest to being Google Fiber to every city in America, Google also has a project dedicated to bringing online access to the remotest places on earth. Through "Project Loon" Google is using solar-powered balloons to provide Wi-Fi access to places with no other infrastructure - and it's working. The company currently has around 75 balloons making their way across the southern hemisphere, and they can provide data at anywhere from five to 22 Mbps to mobile phones and fixed antennas.
When it comes to bringing broadband to rural America, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is at the helm. Charged by Congress in 2009 to develop a National Broadband Plan (NBP) that would ensure every American had access to broadband, the FCC has been rolling out initiatives to allocate resources and expand infrastructures in an effort to meet their lofty goal.
What Can I Do to Help?
Bridging the digital divide isn't just for large corporations and internationally connected non-profits. Both A4AI and Internet.org have opportunities for regular citizens to get involved. Whether you're a developer who wants to lend your big brain to the project or a humanitarian who believes in the positive effects of a more connected world, there are ways to volunteer and make a difference.
Beyond technological assistance, emerging countries will need education on how to use new technologies and incorporate them into daily life. Connectivity will be a game-changer for developing companies and for the global economy.
So, the next time you're killing time with an Internet game on your phone, or connecting with far-away loved ones over Skype, take a minute to remember that you are in the minority when it comes to Internet access. Consider those who are working to expand worldwide connectivity and entertain the possibility that you, too, could help make a difference in bringing the power of the Internet to those without it.