Two months after packing up and moving to Thailand, I took a 4 day trip to Lake Taal, Philippines, where I stayed in a tree house near by a rural town in Poblacion. The jungly nature in this area was absolutely breathtaking.
The locals told us that my friend and I were the only foreigners in town, which we could have guessed from all the glances. Children even began following us, but after a few smiles and high-fives, we bonded and even ended up following them to their homes.
Here was one of them:
It was exactly the type of home you would see in any typical poverty-awareness pamphlet. And yes, they were poor. Sanitary conditions were below par, water was acquired from a well, and most of the siblings all slept in one room.
But don’t let their financial situation deceive you.
Despite their poverty, their digital and media literacy (use of digital devices) were nearly on par with any modern teenager in the USA.
Many of the adults and teens had Samsung or Apple smartphones with the latest apps. Eight year-old children would come up and ask me to “take a selfie” with them.
At night, we encountered a group of locals having a loud karaoke party in their backyard, blasting the latest Ed Sheeran tunes. They were kind enough to let my friend and I join for the drinks and singing. Below, my friend serenades “Sweet Child of Mine” to Filipino children, which they all knew the words to.
On weekends, boys would gather in the computer cafe to play the newest games, like DOTA 2 as well as classics like Counter Strike. (FYI they kicked my ass at everything. Repeatedly.)
Not many people owned a computer in their homes though, because almost nobody had wifi, and the ones who did had an extremely slow connection.
Some may see this lack of Internet as a good thing, allowing the district of Poblacion to keep to their roots. But let’s be honest: their lack of Internet infrastructure is the very reason that’s keeping this district poor, despite their digital literacy.
Internet network infrastructure in the Philippines is a monopoly. Due to a lack of competition, the Internet there is devastatingly slow. In fact, the Philippines has the worst average Internet speed of all of the ASEAN countries.
This is their economic tragedy, because the deficiency of Internet speed in the Philippines discourages people from using it, therefore giving little opportunity for locals to sharpen their digital skill level for employment.
It’s such a shame, because English is one of their official languages. They are ranked 3rd in all Asia in English proficiency, right after Singapore and India. Just imagine if they had faster Internet: they could immediately access and learn from the 55.5% of all content on the Internet that is in English and learn practical computer skills. The locals of Poblacion would have an economic incentive to buy their own laptop (if they can afford an iPhone, then, yes, they can afford a low-end laptop). Once they have a personal computer to spend more time on, they can soak up educational material on Youtube, Udemy, or any of the MOOCs out there. Then, they can go to Odesk, 99Designs, or even directly talk to foreign companies to work for them remotely, which would be a huge rise in their paycheck.
The Future of the Internet
Make no mistake, this isn’t a post on a hypothetical situation. I’m making a case for what is going to inevitably happen here in 2-5 years. This is because some of the most brilliant minds in the world have already brought it upon themselves to solve this problem. They understand that access to the Internet is a basic necessity, not a luxury. At the moment, there are four major efforts being made to connect the world to high speed Internet.
Internet.org , led by Mark Zuckerburg, is creating an Aquila, an unmanned aircraft that can beam Internetaccess down from the sky to any area it flies over. Its wingspan is wider than a Boeing 737, but it weighs less than a car. Despite its size, it runs on solar panels and can stay at altitudes of more than 18,000 meters for months at a time. They’ve completed test flights in the U.K., and will be rolling out production in a few years.
(I can almost imagine some folks following this giant wifi-bird around, where ever it flies, for Internet. They, by definition, will be the true digital nomads.)
2. Google’s Project Loon
Google is approaching the Internet access problem with an unorthodox strategy compared to the other initiatives. Their effort, “Project Loon” aims to launch thousands of giant balloons into the stratosphere (much higher than planes or weather), where they can fill physical gaps in the world where the Internet is missing.
Google has even demonstrated their full geographic control of the balloons through rising or descending the devices to certain winds, and hitching a ride to the desired location. That’s right, they’ve mastered global weather patterns.
Through partnerships with telecommunications companies, Google’s Project Loon will enable people to connect (with LTE) to balloons instead of cell towers.
3. The SpaceX Global Constellation
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has launched a project that would use up to 700 miniature satellites to provide Internet access to any location in the world, especially rural areas. Musk has mentioned that the project will launch “sooner than five years.” However, the similar initiative below will put Musk in competition.
4. OneWeb – Virgin Group & Qualcomm
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin group and Qualcomm have partnered together to produce something similar to SpaceX’s initiative: an expansive constellation of satellites called OneWeb. Thier plan includes launching close to 700 satellites into space, producing a network of high speed Internet at a low cost. Each satellite is said to be able to deliver over 8 gigabits per second of data.
Satellite launches are planned in 2017.
Extra thought: Combining the 4 initiatives together
Each one of these massive initiatives individually solve Internet infrastructure for the whole world. But now imagine if they combined their networks. Most of these initiatives use completely different technology, working at completely different levels of the sky:
(original image credit: Randy Russell, UCAR. Edited by Shoin Wolfe.)
Internet.org’s Aquila flies around the base of the Stratosphere. Project Loon floats in the weather balloon territory, which is the middle to high level of the Stratosphere. OneWeb and SpaceX will rely on small-scale satellites, likely putting them at the Exosphere. All parties have different territories in altitude, which means they could relay the data to each other to form an even faster, broader network than ever possible individually.
Of course, this part is speculative, but telecom companies partner all the time. It’s not a moon shot.
Access to the Internet is rapidly becoming a human right – just as vital as the access to water, electricity, and shelter – and these 4 major initiatives show that the world is acknowledging that. With high-level education soon becoming a click away to all people, the correlation of geography and wealth will drastically diminish over the next decade. Since the majority of high quality websites are in English, places like the Philippines, which have an abundance of native English speakers, will reap the online educational and communicational benefits immediately. I would love to pay a visit to Poblacion again in 2020 to see the difference.
I'm on Twitter @shoinwolfe if you ever want to talk.