At some point in 2021, someone somewhere on Earth may become the planet’s fifth billion internet user. We will get no text message when this happens; no banners will drop, no fireworks will go off, no golden ticket will be issued. Just humanity quietly passing another milestone on its way to connecting every last one of its members to an array of services most of us take for granted, including the ability to read this article.
But as anyone who has studied the digital divide can tell you, the last 2.8 billion (from the world’s current estimated population of 7.8 billion) are going to be the hardest. We just abandoned one major tech firm’s big idea about how to get them online, while the world’s two richest men believe they will do the job with space-based schemes.
Let’s do the numbers
As of Dec. 31, 2020, according to an exhaustive compilation of data from the UN, Nielsen Online, and telecom companies around the world, the total verifiable number of internet users on Earth stood at 4.95 billion. That’s 50 million internet hookups shy of the magic five billion; it’s also 64 percent of the total global population. A more conservative October 2020 estimate says 4.66 billion people have access. The COVID pandemic has naturally made data gathering more difficult. Regardless, most experts agree we’re around the 60 percent mark.
Humanity can rightly be proud of this number. It has been roughly two years since the UN announced we’d passed the “tipping point” of getting 50 percent of the planet, 3.9 billion, online. Now we have more than that many people actively using social media every month, let alone the whole internet. (For the purposes of this story, we’ll treat the online world as a net positive; in a later story I will look at the potential downsides of adding billions more people to planet internet, social media especially.)
You may think that because the population of the world is still growing — it’s likely to hit 8 billion this decade — the goal of getting absolutely everyone online is a fool’s quest. Surely we’re adding new people to the human family faster than we are getting them online? But we’re not. The world population increases by around 1 percent a year, a rate that is slowly but steadily falling. Currently, according to demographers at Yale, we are adding a net total of 81 million humans a year — less than the population of Iran.
In theory, there need be no more global digital divide after 2033.
Meanwhile, in 2020, the world added 319 million internet users (that we know of, even amidst the pandemic). That’s around the population of the United States. At that rate, even allowing for 81 million new humans a year, everyone on Earth would go online in the next 12 years. In theory, there need be no more global digital divide after 2033.
Of course, nobody expects us to maintain that rate. It seems destined to fall, just as the rate of adding access to electricity has fallen now that we’re down to the last 800 million. But how close can we get? And can new technology surprise us by actually increasing the rate of growth in online access?
The next 2.8 billion
It may not surprise you to learn that some countries are way less online than others, and that the reasons vary. North Korea is the world’s most disconnected nation, since none of its 25 million citizens are permitted internet access. War-torn South Sudan and highly-militarized Eritrea are next, with just 2 percent of their populations online, according to the World Economic Forum.
In terms of sheer numbers, India (685 million) and China (582 million) top the charts of the disconnected — 50 percent and 41 percent of the population, respectively. Together these two most populous nations account for almost half of the world’s offline.
But these snapshots in time don’t give you the whole picture. India is adding users at a rapid clip; 128 million Indians came online in 2019 alone. Here we’ll have to wait to find out how many were added or lost during the pandemic year of 2020 — which plunged a large portion of the country back below the extreme poverty line. But there’s cause to be cautiously optimistic: China recently announced that 85 million more Chinese internet users were added since the pandemic. (Their internet is heavily censored, of course, but we’ll get to that in the follow-up story.)
In percentage terms, the most eye-opening recent growth is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC had a 122 percent increase in internet users in 2019, thanks largely to the Internet Society, a nonprofit network of global volunteers dedicated to getting the world online. The Internet Society donated an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) — an important piece of infrastructure which isn’t absolutely necessary to get online, but does massively reduce costs for service providers while increasing speeds.
The more we build IXPs, the more users will come. The Internet Society aims to use them to provide 80 percent of all of Africa’s internet traffic from within the continent, reducing its dependence on the rest of the world.
From Silicon Valley to the world
The fact that Facebook partnered with the Internet Society on providing IXPs in Africa should clue you in to an important fact. Silicon Valley has a real interest in getting everyone on the planet online, even the 700 million-plus currently living in extreme poverty. This is not simply out of the goodness of their hearts, but also because the more people whose behavior you can observe online, the more data points you have to sell to advertisers.
That’s one reason why Google spent a decade on one of its “moonshot” projects that sounded literally loony. Project Loon built high-altitude balloons that floated WiFi hotspots above remote rural areas. Plagued with problems from its inception — one test flight over Sri Lanka in 2016 ended with a balloon crash-landing on a tea plantation — Project Loon finally shut down in January 2021. “The road to commercial viability proved much longer and riskier than hoped,” Google X CEO Astro Teller said.
One of Loon’s biggest customers, Telkom Kenya, will shut down its balloon service in March. The company says it will expand access to former Loon customers by building good old-fashioned 4G towers instead.
That doesn’t mean Google is giving up on the global internet access dream. Enter Project Taara, also being tested in Kenya as of November. Taara uses beams of light to deliver internet signals; think fiberoptic cables without the cable. A Taara unit, so long as it has an uninterrupted line of sight to another unit within 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), can deliver super-speedy bandwidth of up to 20 gigabits per second. “Enough for thousands of people to be watching YouTube at the same time,” said the statement unveiling Taara — making Google’s financial incentive plain.
Taara remains a moonshot project; whether it can scale up fast enough to make a major dent in the 2.8 billion number in the next decade remains to be seen. But this ground-based Google plan may soon find itself in a race against always-on internet from space, courtesy of Musk.
Starlink is the name of the SpaceX satellite internet service currently in beta, set to launch later this year. As of the end of February 2021, SpaceX rockets will have sent 1,265 Starlink satellites into low-earth orbit, nearly all in the past year. SpaceX has submitted the paperwork that would let it launch as many as 42,000 in total, which should be more than enough to blanket the whole planet in internet service.
Most of Earth by end of year, all by next year, then it’s about densifying coverage.
Important to note that cellular will always have the advantage in dense urban areas.
Satellites are best for low to medium population density areas.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 22, 2021
Not to be outdone, Jeff Bezos — Musk’s great rival in all things space-based — is working on a similar satellite internet service called Project Kuiper. The Amazon service promises faster speeds than Starlink (400 megabits per second, enough for 4K TV streaming), as well as antennae that are one third the size of Starlink’s, making them easier to manufacture. So far, however, it has secured FCC permission for a mere 3,200 satellites, and there’s no word on cost to the end user. But clearly Amazon has a vested interest in getting as much of the world as possible to shop online.
Technical challenges remain. Satellite internet service suffers in bad weather, which is on the rise thanks to climate change. SpaceX responded to complaints from astronomers about all these points of light in the sky by covering new Starlink satellites in a nonreflective coating, but that still leaves the company open to the charge that it is creating a space junk nightmare. Starlink’s top speed of 150 megabits per second isn’t as fast as fiberoptic cables, although as I was writing this, Musk pledged to double that top speed by the end of 2021.
Of course, for the 2.8 billion humans offline, 150 megabits per second is not nothing. Equally obvious: Just blanketing the whole planet doesn’t give them access, especially given that Starlink is being run for profit (the goal being to fund SpaceX’s path to Mars). The current price for Starlink pre-orders is $99 a month. For the 770 million residents of Earth earning less than $2 a day, that’s a nonstarter.
It makes sense for Musk to bring the price down so Starlink can scale up as fast as possible. He’s already set to get $885 million from the FCC on the promise of delivering satellite service to the hardest-to-reach homes in rural states. (Around 10 percent of Americans say they don’t use the internet at all, which may be partly due to the fact that 21 million people lack broadband access.)
Starlink is also trying to get on the FCC Lifeline program, which provides a $9.25 subsidy for low-income households looking to get online. This would make no sense unless SpaceX were planning to offer a price tier substantially lower than $99 a month.
Even in a cold-hearted business sense, there may be some value to taking a loss on low-income customers. As much as we may roll our eyes at the notion that a billionaire will become the planet’s internet messiah, there are historic bragging rights that come with being the individual who gets the whole world on the internet. That should spur Musk and Bezos on to provide satellite service to as much of the planet as possible as fast as possible.
Still, most likely, getting the next 2.8 billion people online will take an all-of-the-above strategy. We need price-cutting wars between providers, massive government investment and subsidies to bring rural areas online, deep NGO involvement on the ground, and deployment of multiple moonshot technologies like Taara and Starlink alongside old-fashioned cellphone towers. If all the stars align, it’s not unrealistic to think that pretty much the entire planet could have access wherever it wants by 2035. Meaning we’d have internet everywhere even before we eradicate extreme poverty.
What happens next…well, let’s just say we should be careful what we wish for.