Internet connectivity is widespread and the notion of what the Internet and access is happens to be very different from the Silicon Valley vision. From Iain Marlow at The Globe and Mail.
Let me be even more clear: The Internet already exists in Africa! With few exceptions, no matter where I went in Ghana, I got wireless service – and was even able to tether my laptop to my BlackBerry. All of these experiences, as well as quickly signing up for a pre-paid wireless service in nearby Nigeria, make me deeply skeptical about the much-hyped attempts by massive Western corporations to “bring” Internet service to Africans. Google is planning on floating balloons over unconnected parts of the continent. And now Facebook, according to Techcrunch, is looking at buying a drone company called Titan Aerospace to do much the same thing: Toss up solar-powered unmanned flying craft that will beam down Internet to remote areas – like something out of a remake of The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Now, there are several things that strike me about this.
First: I don’t trust people in Silicon Valley to tell me what’s happening elsewhere in California, let alone what’s happening (or should be happening) in Africa. The steady stream of idiotic products that accompanies every sliver of innovation from the tech world is evidence enough of this. But every once in a while, international aid in the form of technology metastasizes into something particularly stupid – like Kony2012– and the ideas gain outsized attention (and funds and credence) by playing on simplistic assumptions by people who know absolutely nothing about the situation on the ground. There are thousands of smart Africans already working in technology in Africa, and doing amazing things, and I don’t hear many of them talking about balloons and drones (except those other sorts of drones).
Again, don’t get me wrong. If this enfranchises people with connectivity that they never had before (and can actually utilize), then this could be a great opportunity – either for Facebook and Google to provide the connectivity on their own, or to startle carriers on the ground into extending service deeper into rural areas, more rapidly, thereby achieving the same thing. But we’ve heard ideas like this before, and they almost never turn out to be more than a catchy headline. And this time it’s coming from companies that are trying to convince the financial markets that there is growth out there, beyond the hills in the places where none of them have ever travelled – in the lands where people use WhatsApp.