Internet connectivity is arguably the single biggest driver of information, innovation and opportunity available in the world today. Metaphorically speaking, the Internet is the new universal language, a communication conduit for every person regardless of age, education or socio-economic status; with the Internet, a nearly boundless cache of information exists only a few clicks away, but all that possibility and promise will go unrealized if the world isn’t able to get online.
A number of emerging services are looking to solve the issue of access, exploring new ways to network the planet and achieve faster connection speeds without the need for costly infrastructure or top of the line technology.
How did we get here?
Back in the 1960s and 70s, researchers all over the world—like the ARPANET team pictured above—were working on methods of transferring information from one computer network to another. These interconnected computer networks would later evolve into the global phenomena of internetworking or, more simply, the Internet. Then in the 1990s British engineer and computer scientist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, developed the commercial WorldWideWeb as a way to organize, view, and share information on the Internet through the use of Web browsers.
In just 20 short years since the creation of the Web, more than 2 billion people worldwide have been connected. That means that nearly a third of humanity now has near instant access to an estimated (by Google CEO, Eric Schmidt) 5 million terabytes of data. It should be noted, though, that a lot of this data is likely cute cat videos— as evidenced by the haunting image below. This grainy cat-like image was spit out by Google’s artificial intelligence program after it was shown a pool of 1 million random pictures from the Internet to see if it could recognize distinct visual patterns.
But there are are also terabytes of helpful information like Wikipedia, which was as large as 1.2 terabytes even in 2006. We’re creating more data than ever before- it has been estimated that humans created more data in 2009 that in the previous 5,000 years combined- and of course, one of the first things we did was put all of that knowledge online. Every basic mathematic, scientific, and creative concept that makes modern civilization possible is free to all—all, that is—who have access to the Internet.
As the Web grows larger and more advanced we’re effectively removing barriers and moving towards open access. A new web browser like Google Chrome will automatically translate webpages between more than 60 different languages. And on the other end of the spectrum, the controversial practice of peer-to-peer sharing has effectively eliminated the economics associated with accessing virtually any form of ‘paid’ media. But none of these advances matter for the other 4 billion people who can’t connect.
Some may not have computers or, if they do, there simply may be no way for them to get online. Frederico Pistono, co-creator of WiFli Global, a venture that aims to provide free Internet access to every person on earth, explains the potential of Internet access in a blog post:
We know there are many challenges—access to clean water, food, cheap energy—but we realize that access to information can enable the solutions to all of the problems we face as a species. We’d rather teach people how to build a fishing rod, instead of feeding them fish all the time. Imagine what would happen if the 4 billion people who are not participating in the global conversation could access the sum of all human knowledge. Imagine what they could create, what they could invent, what they could do if they had that possibility.
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