Around 3.2 billion people have access to the Internet. That’s amazing, but it’s fewer than half of the 7 billion or so people on earth. And while Internet access was once a luxury, it is quickly becoming essential as the world’s commerce, educational resources, and entertainment move online. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of schemes to bring Internet to underserved countries, ranging from low-orbit satellites to high-altitude balloons to drones. Some analysts have criticized these projects, arguing they won’t deliver Internet access at prices people in the developing world can afford. It’s a bit like trying to make up for a lack of roads by building cars that don’t need them, says Mark Summer of EveryLayer, a Silicon Valley company that helps local ISPs create wireless networks in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. The alternative?
Deploy Internet the old-fashioned way: “It’s not so sexy to build roads, but we’re not going to overcome the challenge of missing infrastructure with flying cars,” he says. Even as billionaires like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg plot to wire the unwired, people in these countries, with a little help from outside companies and investors, are quickly and quietly building their own Internet infrastructure. And they’re doing it using fairly rudimentary methods: by trenching pipes and building cell towers. They have a long way to go, but they’re already proving remarkably successful.
Laying Cable: A major problem in emerging countries is that when Internet access is available, it’s often expensive. That’s due in part to a lack of competition among providers, says Funke Opeke, the founder and CEO of the Nigerian telco MainOne. In some cases it comes down to a lack of infrastructure, but in other cases, the governments or companies that own the infrastructure don’t want to lease bandwidth to private ISPs.