Internet Access in Developing Countries [a different business model]

Low and middle income earners in developing countries experience challenges in getting usable internet connections that enable them tap into opportunities available to them through the knowledge economy, and in turn, improve their quality of life. A few blog posts ago, I spoke about internet access in developing countries and how connecting people in these societies involves the medium (device), access (connectivity – network) and content. The medium and content are society agnostic as innovation will continue to drive down the cost of powerful internet aware devices, and consumable content will continue to be generated as long as people have access to the internet.

Our weak link continues to be the access. It still costs a lot to carry bits of data reliably from one medium to another, especially between geographically distant areas, like across the Atlantic. Here is an interactive map of all the submarine cables active today between different countries – Submarine Cable Map 2013. Also, countries with poor underlying basic and telecommunications infrastructure need many times more upfront investment to enable the last mile needed to deliver access to consumers. As a result, the connection continues to be expensive. A lot can also be said about countries with lack of basic infrastructure like electricity and security, and these pose a new genre of business risks not experienced in the first world.

What I’m proposing is a different way to think about earning revenue from access. If we focus on the fact that the consumer needs to be charged in legal tender for their connectivity to the internet, then the cost will continue to be prohibitive to this genre of consumers. However, we all know that there is a goldmine of talent and revenue to be tapped into if we are able to subsidize the cost of connectivity to these people. In fact, we open totally new and virgin markets that were previously non-existent for ecommerce etc. If that is the case, what if we add a new stream of revenue to our business model that enables corporate entities to sponsor this internet access, just like we see with internet provided in some airports and convenience facilities “free of charge” today?

In essence, we create a low cost wide-spread network with highly ubiquitous technology (Wifi) that gives people access after they have paid by completing a transaction that adds value to the corporate entity. Example, the user sees an ad, or completes a survey, or completes a usability test, after which they are given access to the network for a predefined period of time. Scarce resource, in exchange for another scarce resource. Basic economics.

I am very confident that the technology exists already today, as anyone can create their own version of a *nix operating system, throw it on some budget hardware and create a router that relegates authentication, authorization and accounting (AAA) to a rich media server for a predefined group of users. A company called RGNets also has a wonderful product they call the revenue extraction gateway, which opens unforeseen opportunities to extracting revenue out of the last mile on access networks. Think about the free to air TV business model. Granted, internet access is a reasonably more expensive technology to deploy but just how much more would people be willing to do (value) if they knew it would earn them access to the information superhighway?

If we combine that knowledge with renewable energy (solar & wind), unlicensed frequencies (2.4/5.4/5.8GHz), new innovations in wifi that push the limits of coverage of an already ubiquitous wireless technology, like what Ruckus Wireless is achieving with their beamforming wifi antennas, we can create a totally new business model for internet access that caters to a mass market of low to middle income earners and creates a platform to enable corporate entities sponsor internet access for them in exchange for an ‘event’ or ‘action’ that requires the attention of a human and adds value to the corporate entity that sponsors the session.

A good concept is looking at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. What if, hypothetically, a tech savvy college kid in Uganda could pay for 30 minutes of access to the internet by completing a ‘HIT’ instead of taking money out of their pocket? Definitely, they would need to complete a qualification test to ensure that they have the ability to complete the complex task, and there would need to be a quality assurance step to ensure they completed the task as required.

Potential Recipe

Energy – Solar & wind, excess stored in batteries.

Authorization, Authentication and Accounting (Two Customers) – A rich media platform that –

  • authorizes users and accounts for their internet sessions based on events, in addition to legal tender
  • enables corporate entities (and individuals) all over the world create events that need to be completed and pay for them (think Google Adwords or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk)

Network –

  • Core – Fibre
  • Middle Mile: Backhaul – Fibre {primary}, Microwave {secondary)
  • Last Mile: Backhaul – Unlicensed Point-to-Multipoint, Access – Wifi

The possibilities are endless. The point is, when you think of internet access as a scarce resource, and human intelligence or attention as another scarce resource, regardless of where it exists, you can create a platform that enables a barter of the both across borders and into markets that never previously existed and are likely more profitable. First hand, I know Lagos, Nigeria is home to ~31,330 people per square mile, with ~386 square miles. Internet penetration today is estimated at 15.6% in Africa, with most of those people accessing the internet in cybercafes and shared connection centers. There’s a market somewhere in there.


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