Africa, Web Access: What Google's Doing Right

In all of the hubbub -- good and bad -- about Google's 10th anniversary this week, one story about the company didn't get all of the attention it deserved.

As you may or may not have heard, on Tuesday, Google announced that it has joined in a consortium with several other companies to create the O3b ("the other 3 billion") Network. Its avowed goal is to bring high-speed wireless Internet to until-now underserved regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

To accomplish this, O3b plans to launch a network of 16 low-earth orbit communications satellites by the end of 2010. This network, the consortium claims, will increase the world's Web-connected population to just more than 3 billion people … in other words, essentially what is currently the world's entire work force.

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I've written about this Third Billion before, much of it revolving around what is increasingly being seen as one great transitional year in human history: 2011. Most of my thoughts on this have derived from the work of my colleague Tom Hayes and his recent book, "Jump Point."

What Hayes has long argued is that when the word's entire labor force becomes interconnected via the Web, all sorts of extraordinary networking effects will start emerging: the world's first million-employee company, the first trillion-dollar corporation, an explosion in new inventions and patents arising from a doubling of the world's available intellectual capital, new fads and trends from the most unlikely places racing around the planet overnight, new centers of power … and dangerous new threats.

And now, Google, in a very gutsy move, has just put Hayes' predictions right on schedule.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in southern Africa in the course of this decade (and going back next summer), for me, the O3b Network announcement comes as welcome news.

Far better that a private consortium upgrade the technical infrastructure of the region than leaving it to the World Bank or some other international agency. Being a commercial enterprise -- that is, it has to show a profit to shareholders -- Google will be committed to making this project actually work, which is more than can be said for most International Aid endeavors. With Google's involvement, I fully expect to be posting this column from Namibia, via my cell phone, in 2012.

You probably also know, if you have followed this column for any time, that I have pretty strong feelings about what Africa (and the rest of the underdeveloped world) needs to pull itself up into the 21st century. A technology infrastructure was just one of those factors, and thanks to Google et al, we may finally be starting to solve that one. The other three -- and all four interact to create either a virtuous or vicious cycle -- are education, trust (meaning political stability, reduced corruption and the rule of law) and capital.

I don't know enough about the rest of the developing world to make any predictions about the impact of the O3b Network. But I can talk about sub-Saharan Africa. And there's two things I know about the region: 1. It is ready, like no time in the last half-century, to make the leap to the world economy; and 2. All victories in Africa are small ones, and all change is two steps forward and (if you are lucky) one step back.

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