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.

The other thing we often forget about Africa is that it is not monolithic, even though we often treat "the Dark Continent" as a single entity. No matter how many satellites you park in geosynchronous orbit over it, Africa will not all change at once, but country by country, region by region. In Africa at least, the "Other 3 Billion" should be more properly named, "A Million at a Time."

For example, I'll make the prediction right now that the adopt curve for O3b will be very quick for southern Africa, and very slow for the countries across the continent's midsection. South Africa, for example, may be a place of crime, rape and refugees these days, but it is also unquestionably a modern economy. You can already get broadband in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Capetown and all of the other big cities. Where O3b will have an impact is in the countryside and in the poor townships. Many of those folks already have cell phones -- or access to one by the minute from a corner shop -- so adoption should be almost instantaneous.

Much more interesting is that tier of countries that cross the continent just above South Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and up the eastern coast to include the old English colonies of Tanzania and Kenya. With the exception of Mozambique (which is racing to recover) and Kenya (with its recent problems), every one of these countries has been pretty much at peace for a generation or more. Every one of them is undergoing massive reconstruction and development, much of it funded by oil and natural resource land rushes taking place in their much wilder (and much less likely to benefit from O3b) neighbors like both Congos and Angola.

Of these countries, Malawi and Tanzania are among the most beautiful on the planet. Botswana, even with the scourge of AIDS, would make any list of the best countries on the planet -- no crime, beautiful people, a stable economy -- the Costa Rica or Switzerland of Africa.

Even crowded Zambia, its biggest city, Lusaka, teeming with millions of desperately poor people, has undergone a stunning metamorphosis in recent years. I used to look at the ubiquitous images of Zambian President Dr. Levy Patrick Mwanawasa and assume he was just another example of that scourge of African advancement, the "Big Man."

But he proved to be anything but -- instead, until his death a few weeks ago, he fought endlessly against poverty and corruption, and was about the only African leader to come out publicly against his neighbor Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. If Zambia can now successfully transition to a new government, it too will be ready to break out onto the world economy.

That leaves only Zimbabwe, which sits like a cancer in the center of sub-Saharan Africa. But Mugabe is ancient, and one can't help but think that beautiful nation's nightmare will soon end … but, of course, Mugabe has surprised us before.

What all of this means is that though (and with good reason) we think of Africa as the Sick Man of the World, a vast region of the continent is now ready to make the leap to the world economy -- and if a beachhead can be made there, there's no reason it can't steadily spread northward over the decades to come.

With a growing tradition of political stability and increasing confidence with the rule of law, combined with the arrival of a sophisticated technological infrastructure as signaled by the O3b Network, the countries will soon be halfway there (and, indeed, in their big cities, thousands of professionals already are).

That leaves education -- elementary is already good, secondary fair and university level pretty poor unless you're white -- and capital. Africa is a land of entrepreneurs, who unfortunately have no access to either money or distribution.

What makes O3b interesting, and the arrival to widespread wireless broadband to Africa perhaps historic, is that its very presence may help to solve those last two challenges.

If a kid in Missouri can take courses online from Cal or Harvard, why not a kid in Malawi? And if the owner of a small business in Marin can sell craft items around the world via a Web site, why not a shopkeeper in Livingstone? And, once a venture capitalist knows that a local economy is safe from crime, government expropriation or the rule of bribery, why wouldn't he or she invest in a new startup in Botswana, in the same way that VC does now in China?

The problem with the poor people of Africa is not that they are stupid, but that they are off the grid. And that, too often, they are at the mercy of people who see them only as pawns.

Google may be doing some scary things these days, but this isn't one of them. Watch what happens when the people of Africa join us in the global economy; when they discover that instead of being pawns they can be kings.

This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.