Approximately one third of the world’s population has access to the Internet. Billions of individuals across the planet enjoy the ease and efficiency of speedy, wireless communication. Billions are selling, dealing, trading, and marketing online. Billions are deepening relationships between companies and customers through the Internet. But what of the remaining two-thirds of the world’s population (approximately 4.8 billion), that lacks a steady stream of binary information? Do developing populations miss out on the innovation and connectivity of the World Wide Web? Today, the web is a large part of the functioning global economy, and, as online innovations continue to expand, some believe that it may be nearly impossible to maintain a business without a bandwidth.
Google thinks so. Last summer, the company launched Project Loon, an initiative that literally beams free wireless down to developing countries by way of skinny, white hot-air balloons. The balloons are floating in routes over New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina to provide gratis Wi-Fi. Facebook is also stepping up. “We’ve been working on ways to beam Internet to people from the sky,” Zuckerberg said. “Our goal with Internet.org is to make affordable access to basic Internet services available to every person in the world.” The social media giant plans to send sun-powered robot flying planes to emulate what Google is doing, providing a whole new population with some streaming love.
This is fantastic news for the outdoor adventurers who want to compare North Face prices to Patagonia prices from atop the mountain, or super convenient for tourists who want to change their flight on the go, or jolly good fun for the study abroad kids instagramming their moments of foreign nature and culture. The bigger concern: what can free service do for the populations that live in those areas, some of which are developing countries that have a much greater need for things like water, food, mosquito nets and proper education? Even if smartphones and tablets will soon be easier to come by (read: less expensive, thanks to Mozilla), the question remains: is there a need to bring e-commerce into developing countries and emerging markets?
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESCO) thinks so. Since late 2012, the UNDESCO communication-for-development agenda has given “sufficient emphasis to promoting free, independent and pluralistic media in developing countries.” Free wireless can be seen as a tool for promoting sustainable economic growth:
Whether it be by plane, by balloon or any other low-cost measure, here are four reasons why offering free broadband in developing countries works toward building emerging markets:
1. The Internet provides more financial inclusion across the developing world through the use of mobile money. According GSMA, at the end of 2013, nine markets (Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) already had more mobile money accounts than bank accounts. That went up from four markets in 2012.
2. The Internet provides access to necessary business inputs, such as legal, capital, financial and accounting services, which allows these markets the means to compete globally.
3. The Internet provides a means to bypass international trade barriers, such as insufficient customs procedures and unreliable transportation infrastructure. Similar to SME’s developing countries will have an opportunity to efficiently sell goods and services overseas.
4. The Internet provides a platform for crowdfunding. The World Bank predicts that crowdfunding efforts have the potential to raise over $965 billion in the next ten years—in developing countries alone.