In February 2018, a rocket launched by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, placed a Spanish radar satellite called Paz into orbit. While the launch itself was uneventful, there were two significant stow- aways on board: a pair of small prototype satellites, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, to test new communications technologies. SpaceX plans to use information from these tests to build a network of communications satellites called Starlink to provide broadband services across the planet.
There are currently about eight hundred functioning communications satellites in orbit, providing services across the globe. SpaceX has Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permission to launch 11,943 Starlink satellites in the next few years. The constellation is scheduled to be completed by 2025.
Starlink is just one of several large projects involving a new generation of communications satellites that will provide broadband services across the planet over the next few years. Other nonsatellite technologies, such as high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones, are being developed by Google, Facebook, Airbus, and other major players to extend broadband to parts of the planet currently unreached by the internet.
In the twenty-five years since the World Wide Web appeared with the launch of the Mosaic browser, about half the population of the planet has gained access to the internet. In the next three to five years, the other half will be gaining access. That second half of the planet’s population, notably, is the “poor half,” with most of the three billion or so future internet consumers currently living on less than several dollars per day.
The impact of rapid internet extension in developing countries will be profound, since broadband will enable many previously unavailable services, such as information access, distance education, online banking, health services, and government programs. It will also, of course, bring many challenges, including fraud, misinformation, and hate speech.
The extension of the internet across the full planet, which I call The Great Connecting, is a momentous event in world history. Have there been any other global events that significantly affected billions of people over just a few years? Even considering wars, epidemics, famines, technologies, and religion, it is hard to think of any. The Great Connecting is doing just that, however, at this very moment.
Despite the fact that the connecting of the planet is so significant, it is, ironically, very hard to witness. It is happening in millions of simultaneous small steps, all essentially hiding in plain sight. It is happening in a kiosk in Harare, where a student is buying her first smartphone. It is happening in Redmond, where an engineer is designing new broad- band satellite antennas. It is happening in Cuzco, where a nonprofit is teaching farmers to use a new app. It is happening in New York, where global policy organizations are setting telecommunications standards. It is happening in Kigali, where international firms are laying fiber optic cable. All are contributing their little bit in this process of connecting the planet—and the combined effect is profound.
It is also happening fast. While traditional internet technologies involving cell towers and smartphones continue to expand in developing countries, the new technologies involving satellites, balloons, and drones represent a major and speedy leap forward.
I decided to write a book about The Great Connecting. It is an epic story that I wanted to investigate and better understand. So I took leave from my technology company in California to spend part of a year traveling to regions with no broadband, including some of the poorest, most remote areas that are likely last in line for connecting. I also sought to explore regions just getting broadband and to speak with those most affected. I met with engineers and scientists driving the innovation of communications at some of the largest and most sophisticated technology firms on the planet. I spoke with policymakers who are thinking about the rules and implications of expanding connectivity. I sought out the most knowledgeable and passionate folks I could find who are leading the expansion of broadband.
Two questions animated my explorations. First, what are the implications, both positive and negative, of The Great Connecting in develop- ing countries and for the planet overall? Second, and most important, what are the major players involved in connecting the planet doing to prepare, to best accentuate the positive and mitigate the negative effects of expanded connectivity? I entered the project with a hunch that many groups are sprinting toward wiring the planet, but few are thinking hard about the opportunities and challenges once that hap- pens not many years from now. The dog is chasing the car—but what happens when it catches it?
In this book, I navigate through the current state of broadband across the planet, including who has it, who doesn’t, and present trends. I explore the technologies that in the near future will have a tremendous impact on reaching billions of new people. I review many of the remarkable possibilities that global broadband will offer. I dive into a number of challenges of expansion—including some heart- rending stories that illustrate very real perils. I also propose a number of steps that governments, organizations, and individuals should be taking to best prepare for The Great Connecting. The pages contain narrative, travelogues, background primers, and policy recommendations, all in a mosaic that reflects the complexity of the global story under way.
Through my explorations, I came to view The Great Connecting as a complex relationship taking place: the population of half the planet is about to become closely connected to the other half for the first time. It is the story of a global union. Like any complex relationship, many aspects are at play: exploring what’s possible, investing in growth, over- coming challenges, and discovering the best path to partnership. Those are the stages I describe in the book. I’ve even organized chapters along the path of this emerging relationship.
And like any complex relationship, there are aspects that are wonderful, and there are aspects that are terrible. The relationship requires investment and effort and an optimistic sense of the future. It also requires a clear-eyed idea of what troubles might lie ahead.
As it so happens, the story of this relationship begins in a land very far away.