A Quick Primer on Global Wealth

yachtWealth across the planet is distributed very unevenly. So is access to broadband. These two facts are related: broadband now tracks to areas with more wealth. In the future, when broadband is everywhere, we will have the opportunity to serve the poorest parts of the planet in ways heretofore impossible.

How unevenly distributed is wealth?

In 2017, Oxfam produced a report “An Economy for the 99%” which included a staggering statistic: The richest eight men in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet (around 3.6 billion people).

(For those keeping track at home, the richest eight men in early 2017 were Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim Helu, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg — combined wealth of around $425 billion.)

Oxfam’s calculations are based on the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data Book 2016

While all eight of the richest men could fairly be described as “self-made”, that isn’t true for the majority of billionaires (9 out of 10 of whom are men), according to Oxfam analysis. Over half of the world’s billionaires inherited their wealth or work in industries prone to cronyism and corruption.

82% of the wealth created in 2016 went to the top 1%.

Moon to Get 4G Network

moonVodaphone, in partnership with Nokia, plans to provide a 4G network on the moon in 2019. The project is part of a larger mission to place a lander and two “Audi Quattro Rovers” on the lunar surface. The initiative, spurred by the Google Lunar X Prize (which ends in March with no winners), will launch in 2019 on a Falcon 9 rocket.

4G coverage will be enabled by a 1kg Nokia cellular station which will allow real-time HD video to be beamed from Rovers to the main Lander to mission control in Berlin.

Stratolaunch Getting Closer

stratPaul Allen’s Stratolaunch satellite launch system appears to be getting closer to testing. The world’s largest aircraft, which will fly to a high altitude before launching three rockets affixed to its wing, is currently undergoing ground testing at its home at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The Stratolaunch wingspan of 352 feet is nearly 150 greater than a 747.

It is estimated that the Stratolaunch will be able to launch a payload of 5,000-10,000 pounds to low earth orbit — or around a tenth of a Falcon 9 launch. It should be much cheaper and more flexible, however, for microsatellites at low orbits. And there are a lot of uses for small satellites at low orbits.

Stratolaunch management is also reportedly considering the design of a reusable space shuttle vehicle which could deploy satellites or visit the space station.

It’s anticipated that flight testing will begin later this year. No dates are set for full operations.

Digital Welcome Wagon

wagonWelcome Wagon: a welcoming service that provides information about a community to new residents.

— Collins English Dictionary

As the next several billion people come online, what would an appropriate Digital Welcome Wagon look like for them?

Currently, most people are handed a smartphone with some pre-loaded apps (determined by both the manufacturer and the service provider) and maybe some literature about their service plan. In some parts of the world this is supplemented with information about Facebook Basics. That’s about it.  (When I recently started a new service in Nicaragua, I also got instructions about how Facebook and WhatsApp don’t charge for data, and also immediately started receiving multiple text messages with “upsells” for more data, music services, and discounts at Pizza Hut.)

What would an ideal new online experience be for a new smartphone user? How about:

  • A welcome video in an appropriate language from a credible person to greet the new user;
  • A quick tutorial on five really useful basic services to know about (such as phone, texting, camera, weather information, calendar);
  • A curated list of one or two outstanding sites for news, health, education, finance, and government services;
  • What to do if you need help;
  • Simple tutorials for more information, including how to avoid problems with fake news, fraud, or other issues.

Ideally this would be developed and managed by either governmental or international organizations as to not favor any given corporation.

We’re soon being joined online by a few billion fellow humans. Let’s welcome them!

Fake News in Developing Countries

ukraineFake news is a terrible problem in the US. In many other countries it is much worse:

  • According to Freedom House, only 13% of the world’s population live in countries with a free press;
  • In many developing countries, citizens have lower media literacy than those in rich countries;
  • In developing countries, there can be a blind trust of information via new technologies;
  • Many people get information from social networks on Facebook or WhatsApp, immediatly trusting what others have to say;
  • There often is a paucity of credible news sources or professional journalism to counterbalance rumor;
  • Many forces use social media maliciously, often with the backing of the state (such as Russian efforts in Ukraine).

To combat fake news in developing countries, it is necessary to take the same steps required in developed countries.

Even more, however, is necessary.

Often an independent, trained local media will need to be built up from nothing. Internews programs in Afghanistan, for example, have covered the country with professional, local radio broadcasting in regional languages.

Low-tech options for citizen journalism exist. CGNet Swara, for example, lets anyone call in and record a report by cell phone. Submissions are reviewed and curated into a newsfeed for the community.

Media literacy programs become even more important. In Ukraine, for example, media training programs for youth are now included in the national curriculum.

And many organizations need to participate in fact-checking. In Kenya, for example, Safaricom (the mobile phone company and Kenya’s largest corporation) spends 50% of its communications team resources combatting fake news.

Fake news is a major challenge in developing countries. With the rapid expansion of broadband, problems are poised to become even more difficult.

Compendium of Solutions for Fake News

fakeThanks to a perfect storm of political rancor, social media algorithms, and malicious actors, fake news has become a major challenge for American democracy.

Many researchers and journalists have proposed policies and interventions to combat fake news, including those as summarized in recent overviews by Brookings, BBC, the New York TimesForbes, and the Washington Post.

Here are commonly proposed solutions:

News Industry

The news industry needs to do all possible to define and promote honest, fair, professional journalism. Providing more background information and transparency enhances legitimacy of the industry.

Simultaneously, the industry needs to quickly and effectively identify and debunk fake news (easier said than done). The way fake news is corrected often matters: for example, researchers have shown that video often works better than text, repeating the fake news can unintentionally reinforce it, and partisan voices correcting the news (Republicans debunking conservative news, Democrats debunking liberal news) is most effective.


The government needs to value and promote a free and fair press. Government programs should be careful not to censor nor constrain journalists, and should include programs to support and protect quality journalism. Since journalism and government are often (by design) at odds, support for journalism needs to be codified in law.

In addition, government bodies should identify and censure organizations promoting fake news. In the case of hostile activities by foreign actors, government should aggressively identify and sanction malicious entities working to undermine American trust in the media.

Technology Companies

Technology companies, especially social media companies, need to be strict and consistent in enforcing rules about malicious or fake accounts, such as in Twitter’s recent purge of thousands of accounts. In addition, companies require improved systems and algorithms for accurate and fair identification and removal of fake news. Technology firms have made great progress in combatting spam and demarcating pornography online. Similar progress is required for fake news.

Simultaneously, technology companies need to review their business models, particularly with respect to online advertising, to make sure that those purveying fake news are not financially rewarded for information going viral.

There are other specific steps which would also be useful. For example, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggests requiring social media companies to provide an API to their news algorithms. This would protect both IP and user personal identification, but allow third parties to monitor how the platform might be used for malicious intent.

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions — from kindergarten through university — need to expose students to the challenges of fake news, and train students to be sophisticated and informed consumers of news. This can happen in classes specifically designed for news literacy, but also any class demanding research, analysis, and presentation of ideas.


Individuals need to recognize that the news environment is hostile, there are objectively better and worse sources of information, and it is everyone’s responsibility to enhance their own media literacy. Two good initial steps are to work to diversify the news sources you rely on, and to understand the skepticism and effort required to be an honest, productive consumer of news.


samaAnother innovative organization that supports global development — and relies directly on broadband expansion — is Samasource, a digital outsourcing firm. Samasource works with major corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Walmart, to identify digital tasks which can be done effectively and inexpensively in low-resource environments. Samasource has established programs in Kenya, Uganda, Haiti and India, hiring locals for tasks such as data cleaning, data enhancement, image annotation, localization services, and others.

Samasource, registered as a 501(c)3, believes that the best way to stamp out global poverty is to provide entry-level jobs for people currently earning just dollars per day. They focus on digital tasks that require relatively little training, and build in control systems to guarantee the quality of the work. They claim that since 2008 they have helped move 60,000 people out of poverty.

More on Project Loon — and Other Balloon Companies

loonProject Loon, the Alphabet-supported internet balloon company, doesn’t garner a lot of headlines. It does seem to enjoy, however, steady progress in its goal of offering cheap, effective internet to remote regions.

Most recently, Project Loon is credited with providing over 200,000 Puerto Ricans with free internet services following widespread outages on the island. Project Loon seeks to have five to seven balloons providing coverage at any one time based on complex simulations of weather patterns. Interestingly, in the case of Puerto Rico, they decided to launch balloons from Winnemucca, Nevada. A company blog post by project lead Alastair Westgarth describes the challenges and successes of deploying in Puerto Rico.

Project Loon balloons (from Puerto Rico) have also been spotted recently over Guyana and Trinidad.

Project Loon previously provided emergency internet coverage in Peru following flooding in 2017.

Project Loon isn’t the only initiative using high altitude balloons. Arizona-based World View made headlines initially by promising “near space” tourism. More recently the focus has shifted to services involving “stratollites” — balloons capable of carrying payloads of up to 4500 kg to altitudes of 46 km (the definition of the start of space is generally 100 km, the “Kármán line”), with missions lasting days or weeks. Payloads can include communications or sensing gear.

Also worth mentioning is Chinese technology firm KuangChi Science, which invests in and develops a range of new aviation technologies (balloons, jet packs, flying cars, low-cost aircraft, and others). KuangChi’s balloon-based initiatives involve communications, tourism, and surveillance.


gdMany international organizations targeting extreme poverty rely heavily on internet access in remote regions to do their work. One impressive organization, for example, is GiveDirectly, a New York-based non-profit which provides direct, unconditional cash transfers to people in extreme poverty.

Anyone who has worked in global development can at times be frustrated by inefficiencies. For example, a taxpayer in the US gives money to the federal government, which gives money to USAID, which gives money to an international consulting firm, which gives money to a regional non-profit, which arranges contracts to build and manage a hospital, which serves poor people. Might it be better to simply skip all of the intermediaries and give money directly?

But if that happens, what will poor people do with the money? Waste it?

GiveDirectly explores the efficacy of unconditional cash transfers, as well as (more recently) programs of Universal Basic Income. They study whether it is better to give money to everyone in a community, or just the poorest?; women or men?; fewer installments or more?; shorter commitments or longer? How does performance compare to traditional aid programs?

GiveDirectly does an excellent job designing randomized controlled trials, as well as having work reviewed by third parties. The working conclusion of the cumulative research at this stage is that while unconditional cash transfers aren’t without challenges, they are highly effective in moving people out of extreme poverty. They are apparently more effective than most aid programs, and should at the least be used as a performance yardstick against which to measure all other development efforts (much like how a stock index fund can be used as a performance yardstick against managed funds).

In its five years since inception, GiveDirectly has transferred over $140 million to individuals, mostly in rural Kenya and Uganda.

In order to scale services, in 2014 GiveDirectly spun out a for-profit company called Segovia which provides to GiveDirectly — and any other customers — the platform used for transferring and monitoring unconditional cash transfers.

In addition to providing real-time performance metrics on their site, GiveDirectly also provides a live, un-edited feed of comments from recipients. Their site also offers and excellent FAQ section. The organization was also featured recently in an excellent New York Times review which provides a nice portrait of the impact GiveDirectly has at the village level.

Is Extreme Poverty Incompatible with Broadband?

global wifiIs it possible to have a community with extreme poverty (under $1.25 per day per person) in an environment with inexpensive, reliable broadband?

On its face, this seems an absurd question: reliable broadband almost by definition tracks to communities with sufficient resources to afford it. It’s a bit like saying “is it possible to have extreme poverty in an environment where houses also have swimming pools?”.

But it isn’t so simple — in fact, all poor communities on the planet will be getting reliable, reasonably-priced broadband in the next few years. So what does that imply for extreme poverty?

Even if broadband isn’t affordable to individuals, it is typically affordable to government officials, health clinics, some schools, international NGOs, and others. Once broadband arrives, government programs can reach citizens. International efforts, including direct cash payments, are enabled. Economic advantages of better information and price data are available. Efficiencies around transportation and supply chains are immediately presented.

Or to think about it another way, for a community to really be stuck below $1.25 per person, it almost by definition needs to be isolated, cut off from any economic opportunities or support programs whatsoever. $1.25 per day is an amazingly low number.

So it is reasonable at least to postulate that extreme poverty is in fact incompatible with broadband. (Term this crazy idea “Cashel’s Law”?)