With consumer internet access becoming widespread (and an affordable luxury) to many in the 1990s, Generation Z of the developed world has not known a life without constant connection. Outside the geography of large modern cities, the 2000s saw the Digital Divide narrow, with public and private investment and advances in mobile.
Access vs. Speed
When attention is turned to transmitting data and how fast it is received, the story of copper wire vs fibre paints a fragmented picture of access vs. speed. As commentators debate whether the recent 5G trials are a ‘game changer’ or ‘another false dawn’, some locations in England and Wales are still struggling to download a two-hour SD film in four hours – and streaming is impossible. So how did we get here, and who is driving change?
In July 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Council repeated their stance that aims to further tie internet access to the universal right of Freedom of expression;
“The same rights people have offline must also be protected online.”
The response, generated through a ‘global crisis’ reaction to alleged traffic ‘interference at country level’, re-opened the conversation surrounding service providers ‘throttling’ internet speeds – a practice the United States’ FCC has now said ‘may be unlawful if deployed in a deceptive or unfair fashion’.
These recent announcements add increased backing to those that continue to protest the U.S. Senate’s actions on Net Neutrality. Whether you agree that access rights must be protected, or, that the costs of providing a service to every user (in the same way) was ‘crushing innovation’ doesn’t matter. The question should be, if low speeds count as lack of access, does this break Freedom of expression?
“By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an ‘enabler’ of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole” wrote United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue in 2011.
Recognising the scale and aggravations of low internet speeds, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in 2018 announced a £67m scheme (named Gigabit Vouchers) to help small businesses and Community Broadband initiatives take control of their internet services. To meet rollout demand, the fund pays suppliers directly following group actions (such as organised lobbying) and can assist localities wishing to form an owned and operated model. This includes skipping cables entirely, with satellite internet.
Lasers, balloons and drones
When only 40% of the world has internet access (Pakistan scores lowest, with only 15% of the population online) what are the current internet access projects on our radar?
Internet.org by Facebook– claiming to service at least 40m users, this partnership of seven companies (including Samsung and Ericsson) uses a mix of drones, mobiles and satellite technology to service Zambia, Bangladesh and Iraq amongst others.
Project Loon – part of Alphabet and built with Google technology, Loon pushes the ‘emergency connectivity’ angle alongside its own accessibility solutions. The mix of balloon and solar panel are durable enough for ‘natural disasters’ although we’ve counted 17 crashes in three years.
Outernet – described as ‘hundreds of nano satellites’ this project holds a twist; the data is one-way (for now). This means sites like Wikipedia and local news will be beamed to devices. Just don’t expect the world wide web as we know it.
Space X – Elon Musk’s ‘re-usable’ rocket achieved a turning point in 2018 when it won design approval – a major step toward the planned launches of over 4,000 satellites. Named Starlink, the effort is similar to Outernet in ‘mesh’ coverage design, however it will provide the upload as well as download.
Whilst these solutions sit near the ‘basic’ end of speed, it may become inherent on the current wave of start-ups to offer broadband-style results. In December 2018, a letter sent between the FCC and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association exposed a plan to reclassify broadband to the low rate of 10Mbps. This author currently enjoys 75Mbps and struggled through December’s 24-hour O2 outage.