Google wants to bring the Internet to underdeveloped countries by floating balloons equipped with wireless access in the skies above them. The flashy effort is drawing gawkers, but the Google Loon project could fall short of its goal of spreading knowledge, and bringing cultural and economic improvements to the third world.
Bill Gates says Google is full of hot air. The uber philanthropist -- and still the largest individual shareholder of Google's aging rival, Microsoft -- criticized Loon in the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, saying it's "not going to uplift the poor."
Still, it's hard to argue that giving people access to information would be a bad thing, and Google isn't the only one to recognize this. Here are three other ways that could help poor countries get reliable online connections:
Backup for Blackouts: Described as a "backup generator for the Internet," BRCK is a portable device with a large battery that can connect to a variety of Internet sources. When a landline connection drops out, the device can switch to a nearby Wi-Fi signal or cellular-data network if either is available. While it can be used at home like an ordinary router, the battery lasts for eight hours to allow users to work from the field or stay online during power outages. Blackouts are a common occurrence throughout Africa, home to the nonprofit Ushahidi, which makes the gray BRCK (pronounced "brick"). The product was crowdfunded via Kickstarter, and the first 2,000 units are expected to ship to backers by November, Nathaniel Manning, Ushahidi's director of business development, said in an interview.
Surfing via Satellite: From a business standpoint, connecting the vast, underdeveloped world through traditional means is often impractical. That's probably why Google is building balloons instead of laying fiber cables in these countries. But what about aiming even higher -- with rockets? O3b Networks, which counts Google as one of its backers, plans to build a low-cost, high-speed data network using satellites. Based in Jersey, a British crown dependency, O3b (for the "other 3 billion" Internet users) launched its first four satellites into orbit on June 24 and plans to send another four next month. The goal, according to the company, is to enable people across Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere to get speedy and affordable Internet access.
Local Roads for the Data Superhighway: Networks in emerging markets can be especially slow and expensive because they're not designed efficiently. Service providers in less-developed nations often decide, incorrectly, that it's more cost-effective to run their domestic traffic over international lines, a study published last year by researcher Analysys Mason found. It would be like an entire city's auto traffic being largely confined to freeways (think: Los Angeles). The study, commissioned by the trade group Internet Society, pointed to a better route: Companies in sub-Saharan Africa had built physical infrastructure called Internet exchange points. Like highway interchanges, they not only save money, but they can significantly speed things up.
If one of these efforts beats Loon to enhancing connectivity in third-world countries, maybe Gates will foot the bill for high-altitude party balloons to celebrate.
This story was first published in Bloomberg's Global Tech Today newsletter. To get an early jump on the top tech news from around the world, sign up for the free weekday report.