Between 2008 and 2012, almost 1,000,000,000 new Internet users came online and 75% of them came from the developing world. These numbers are large, yet there are twice as many people who do not have access to the Internet in their communities as there are those who are using it. This provides a great opportunity for companies to develop new markets for Internet access. There is a healthy split between mobile web versus stationary desk top users coming online. Let's take a look at some of the major companies that investors might be familiar with and how they are exploring the idea of providing access to these rural communities around the world.
Google Covers the World with Weather Balloons!
Eighteen months into Google's (GOOG) secret project of launching Internet beaming antennas into the stratosphere aboard giant weather balloons, the world is finally learning about the project. Fifty volunteer households were receiving Internet from a balloon floated 12 miles above the earth for a short period of time. Google hopes it can eventually launch thousands of these balloons to bring the Internet to very remote parts of the globe since there are 4.8 billion people who are still not online.
If this is successful, it will be amazing to see what it will be able to accomplish. Less developed countries may be able to leapfrog over the expensive fiber optic cable installation process with instant Internet usage in remote areas like Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.
In New Zealand, as the balloon floated across the country a rural sheep farmer was one of the first to receive a transmission that lasted for about 15 minutes. World Internet access is extremely expensive right now. If it worked, Google would send balloons 12 miles above the earth and controllers on the ground would adjust the balloons to keep them moving on the desired route. Using weather balloons is not new. The military has used tethered balloons to beam Internet signals back to bases on earth.
The adventure itself is amazing because each balloon would be able to provide a service to an area of about 780 miles and the terrain is irrelevant. Ground stations would send an Internet signal to the balloons, which would hop back and forth to each balloon so that people could continuously connect to the Internet. Solar panels attached to the balloons would generate electricity, which would in turn power circuit boards, radio antennas and on flight control equipment.
In its continued research, Google hopes to have about 300 balloons circling the globe continuously along the 40th parallel, which would take them over New Zealand Australia Chile and Argentina.
Microsoft in Africa with White Space
Microsoft (MSFT) has been widely involved on the continent of Africa bringing Internet to remote areas where electricity hasn't even ventured yet. As recently as 2011, African penetration of the Internet wasn't more than 11.5% and Microsoft has its "white spaces project."
To give you an example of how works, the company set up a series of solar-powered towers in Kenya that access unlicensed white-space frequencies - thus the project name "white spaces." Working with the government, Microsoft uses TV white spaces and solar-powered base stations and towers to provide broadband where Internet was unavailable.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of "white spaces," these are wireless frequency bands commonly used for television. Radio signals in these (television bands) require less maintenance from a supporting base station because they travel longer distances and can move through obstacles.
Because of these characteristics, this "Internet access strategy" becomes an affordable way to bring the Internet to communities that don't currently have it. If this pilot program in Kenya continues to work well the possibilities for global growth look good for Microsoft as long as the powers that be help develop legal frameworks to commercialize this technology.
Microsoft has what it calls its "4Afrika Initiative" and this project is part of it. The company wants to help nations on the continent improve their competitiveness on a global scale. This Internet project is part of that plan. Not only will it help countries, but will increase economic opportunities for the rural areas. There is more than just households that are able to make use of the broadband. Presently in Nannyuki, Kenya, where this new services is provided, a healthcare clinic, primary school, community center and two other secondary schools have been able to access the Internet where they never have been before.
Google is also experimenting in Africa, but in South Africa, with the same system set up to reach 10 schools with wireless broadband. The "experiment" is aimed to show that "white spaces" can be used to offer broadband without interfering with other "licensed" spectrum holders.
Samsung's Mobile Internet Classrooms
While Microsoft starts in Kenya and Google dabbles in South Africa, Samsung is also exploring providing rural Internet access in South Africa.
Samsung has built a solar-powered classroom out of a renovated shipping container that's filled with electronics: a 50-inch electronic board, Samsung Internet-enabled solar-powered notebooks, Galaxy tablets, and Wi-Fi cameras. The solar panels on the roof are able to generate up to nine hours of juice a day. The container is 40-feet long and can hold over 20 students at a time.
The portable classroom was designed this way so it can be moved by truck to other remote areas where there is little or no electricity. Solar panels are not made out of conventional material, more of a rubber-like substance that would handle the constant moving, thus preventing the panels from breaking. The structure is also insulated and ventilated so it could maintain a temperate climate.
The company is exploring a different venue than Microsoft. People in Africa may be introduced to the Internet with a smartphone instead of a personal computer. For this reason part of Samsung's overall marketing strategy is to create awareness of itself by investing in the country's infrastructure.
These portable Internet classrooms are one way they are educating people on who they are. Since the company recently announced that it is doubling efforts to solicit smartphone sales, this is a good way for the company to introduce itself in South Africa. It may not be a wide broadband distribution philosophy like Microsoft and Google are exploring, but it could have a place as an "Internet station" for rural parts of Africa.
The different innovative technologies and ideas that companies like Microsoft, Google, and Samsung are bringing to rural parts of the globe are exciting to read about. I believe the initial success of any of these companies lies in a bigger vision than just providing Internet. There isn't one technology that I have seen that stands out from the rest that I will consider the "Holy Grail" of rural global Internet service. I am sure over time there will be numerous ways that countries will find to provide access to rural areas.
I believe the bigger picture will be companies like the big three developing equipment like microprocessors and low-cost smartphones powered by their operating systems to connect to these wireless networks. This will allow them to sell hardware and possibly Internet access to the communities they provide for.
I tip my hat to the innovative ways these companies are bringing Internet access to these areas. I also can't blame them for wanting to expand their "product market" to these areas also. If it was me not only would I like to provide Internet access but if I was involved in selling mobile and hardware products that accessed the Internet, I would want people that live in those areas to buy my products too.