Should Linking the Next Million Schools Be That Difficult?

Something like two million schools globally don’t have internet access. The greatest obstacle to connectivity is often infrastructure: fiber, cell towers, microwave towers, receiving equipment all are expensive.

LEO internet satellites offer an unprecedented opportunity to link schools. What would be required for this to happen?

  • Starlink, the new LEO service most likely to scale, needs to prioritize schools. Ideally it would waive some or all of data costs for the first 100 thousand schools connected.
  • GIGA needs to expand its database of all schools globally. It has a great head start.
  • The multilaterals, bilaterals, and philanthropic sector need to buy or subsidize user terminals (ideally at a discount from SpaceX). If user terminals are in fact in the low hundreds of dollars each, this should be a manageable expenditure. (The Broadband Commission has called for $109 billion for connectivity, just for Africa). Data usage will also require subsidies.
  • On-the-ground partners need to be identified for installation of antennas and servicing — although ideally this isn’t too complicated.
  • Countries need to prioritize bringing schools online, which has implications for licensing and spectrum for satellite providers.

This doesn’t sound like too daunting a list. I’ve also worked for years in developing countries and understand that simple plans are frequently derailed. The end goal here, however, is so important, that maybe with the promise of LEO internet satellites we’ll make rapid and significant process bringing online the next million schools.

Tech Hubs and Schools

Soon schools in many regions of the world will be gaining internet access for the first time. They will have immediate access to global curricular materials, student resources, online education initiatives, and much more.

What they often will not have, however, are resources that are culturally appropriate and in local languages. Half of the world speaks one of five languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic). This is the half that is essentially online now. The other half of the world speaks over 6,000 languages. This is the half that is essentially soon to come online.

So how to bridge from global online resources to local needs for education?

One key strategy is to use tech incubators. Cities around the globe are now home to thriving co-working spaces bringing tech-oriented professionals together to build local online services and apps. Tech hubs, such as Nairobi Garage in Kenya, BongoHive in Zambia or Phandeeyar in Myanmar provide the space and tools that entrepreneurs require. They also provide an immediate and invaluable source of community to help with collaboration, training, and promoting innovation. lists co-working spaces in 170 countries – and growing! Co-working spaces represent a mostly hidden, but very consequential, form of tech infrastructure in developing countries that will benefit education and other sectors.

Why Starlink Needs a Schools Strategy

Growing companies benefit from public goodwill. When Google was expanding quickly, the combination of excellent services and a “don’t be evil” management motto built up a reservoir of public goodwill. Tesla, with a combination of excellent products and goal of reducing global fossil fuels, has a large reservoir of public goodwill.

SpaceX has goodwill — its engineering is amazing and its goal of making humans “multiplanetary” inspires some people. SpaceX’s Starlink program, however, which will provide satellite broadband globally, doesn’t yet share that same goodwill. Any news search on “Starlink” will generate a long list of articles about how Starlink is going to destroy astronomy, make asteroid catastrophes more likely, and lead to a runaway problem of space debris. None of these are likely true, but you wouldn’t know it from the press.

The irony is that Starlink might in fact represent Elon Musk’s greatest contribution to the planet. Linking four billion people currently without internet to the rest of the world is one of the epic stories of our generation. It can create opportunity, knowledge and wealth at a level heretofore impossible.

One straightforward way for Starlink to get ahead of the press and start building public goodwill would be to make a commitment to provide broadband to schools in developing countries. If Starlink launched a “100,000 schools” program, probably in coordination with the UN and ITU, that story would eclipse all the others.

Of course there is another reason for Starlink to commit to helping link 100,000 schools: it is the right thing to do.

Increased broadband in developing countries is going to create many problems — just ask Facebook about Myanmar. It will also create unbelievable opportunities. It is time Starlink started building up its reservoir of public goodwill. It will certainly need it down the road.

Sustainable Development Goals and Education

In 2000, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set eight development targets to be achieved by 2015. Each goal had associated metrics and timelines.

In addition to mixed success, the goals prompted debate about whether the best, most legitimate eight goals were chosen. There was a parallel debate around the chosen success metrics.

Despite the shortcomings or disputes, however, the MDGs are widely credited with increasing attention, funding, and coordination around fundamentally important global milestones.

As the end of the 15 year window approached, the United Nations launched a follow-on effort entitled the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Careful to avoid criticism of a hasty selection of targets, the UN considered literally hundreds of possible goals, eventually (and painfully) winnowing down to 17 goals — including 169 “targets” and 304 “indicators”. (The large number of goals, targets and indicators unleashed a new wave of criticism.)

Making the “final cut” of 17 goals is #4 / Education, which reads:

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

Countries are making mixed progress towards this goal. Some have already achieved it (Canada, Iran, China, Sri Lanka), while others remain far from the goal. The greatest challenge is across sub-Saharan Africa, where over thirty countries have major challenges ahead.

Confronting these challenges will require many strategies. Certainly linking the next million schools to the internet should be the highest of priorities.

Schools in Developing Countries

Some schools in developing countries are impressive. Innova Schools in Peru are groundbreaking. The Hamels Foundation School in Malawi is awesome. There are many educational points of light throughout developing countries.

Many other schools in developing countries — millions, actually — are unbelievably constrained. In rural Nicaragua classes may be held in shipping containers. In Africa, many schools are held by necessity outdoors. Often a “school” may have a teacher (with limited training), a blackboard — and that is about it. Limited classrooms, no desks, no books, few teachers, no standard curriculum — that is the best you can find in many places.

I was visiting schools once in rural Malawi, and since I was a foreigner, I was handed a note from a school I hadn’t visited requesting help. It outlined that it had few teachers, desks, and toilets:

If schools are lacking even the most basic elements of education, what good will broadband do? A lot actually. One thing is clear from even the most resource-constrained environments: education is a generally a very high priority. If that means holding class in a shipping container or outside under a tree, so be it. People make the best with what they have.

If there is connectivity and at least one device, that opens up a world of opportunities. Teachers have resources. Students can get curricular materials. Ministries of Education can start to reach more students.

Broadband doesn’t solve the education problem. People still need teachers and desks and toilets. But it can help a lot — and in environments where education is prioritized, people are resourceful and benefit from connectivity.

Update from GIGA

GIGA is the UNICEF / ITU project to connect every school on the planet to the internet. It is a big task: there are likely about two million schools still unconnected.GIGA has provided a recent update on current efforts. Highlights include:

  • 9 of 11 states in the Eastern Caribbean (OECS) are now fully connected.
  • Active programs mapping school connectivity are underway in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.
  • Kazakhstan is taking the lead in Central Asia programs, including integrating over 10,000 schools into GIGA global mapping platform.
  • GIGA is moving forward with mapping, connectivity, content and finance programs in many countries, with current priority on Kenya, Niger, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent.

Simultaneously, the large tech firms are making progress in connectivity issues. Loon is now operating commercially in Kenya and Peru and seeks to scale. SpaceX has announced initial commercial services in the US at the end of 2020, with global service offerings in 2021. There are many open questions around services and costs from Loon, SpaceX and others, but major infrastructure is being built.

Under ideal circumstances increased connectivity through new services and GIGA’s comprehensive schools database can lead to rapid extension of school connectivity over the next few years.

Global Education During a Pandemic

My new teacher

A major secondary effect of the pandemic is the creation of a global education crisis. UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion children worldwide are currently out of school in over 180 countries.

In response, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Consortium, a network of public and private sector organizations coordinating to address global education challenges. The Consortium includes multilaterals (WHO, UNHCR, ILO), private sector (Microsoft, Facebook, Zoom, Coursera), philanthropies (Khan Academy, Sesame Street), and many others.

As part of the initiative, UNESCO has published resource lists of online tools as well as a best practices guide on distance education.

One major challenge is that many children do not have access to online resources. In a number of countries (and some states in the US), instruction is now happening by television and in some cases by radio.

If there were a silver lining to this rapid shift to online learning, it is that as broadband reaches more communities in coming years, online resources will be better developed due to the challenges the world now faces with education during a pandemic. and Global Education is Google’s philanthropic arm that directs corporate resources to global problems of importance. Principal areas of focus include education, training, and social justice.’s education efforts are divided between domestic and global efforts. Internationally, supports dozens of initiatives involving curriculum development, teacher support, connectivity issues, refugee education, and other topics.

One example initiative is Pratham Books in India which provides online tools for translation of books into local languages. The majority of books published in India are in English or Hindi despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people speak local languages. Pratham Books now offers titles in 60 languages.

Tools to translate books and curricular materials into local languages are relevant in many countries now expanding internet connectivity. Half the world’s population speaks one of five languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi). The other half speaks over 6,000 languages. The internet will need to become much more multilingual as the next three billion people come online.

Online Education and Covid-19

Duolingo flies

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are suddenly over a billion kids worldwide out of school. Online education services are trying to respond to the need.

Khan Academy, the free online suite of K-12 courses, says that traffic is up over 50% and climbing. Prior to the pandemic, the site already served 18 million students in 42 countries with 10,000 classes in 42 languages.

Founder Sal Khan is running webinars for teachers turning to Khan Academy for assistance in leading online classrooms.

Indian education company Byju’s has made all curricular materials free for the month of April. The firm saw a sudden 60% jump in traffic within seven days of the new policy.

Duolingo, the online language learning service, is also reporting a surge in usage of its various offerings. English proficiency testing is up 200%. Active users in China are up 100%.

The surge in online education activity highlights the need for connectivity for students. Around two million schools currently lack any connectivity, a situation which needs to change in the near future.

OneWeb and Schools

OneWeb is the satellite communications firm seeking to provide broadband from space. OneWeb is currently in the process of launching a low earth orbit constellation 650 satellites. As of March 2020 they have launched an initial 74 satellites.

OneWeb’s goal is to connect “everyone, everywhere”. The company is particularly motivated to connect schools worldwide. The company, for example, has chosen six schools globally to receive free internet (Alaska, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda, Ecuador and Honduras). OneWeb also launched a program called #Launchpad to provide curricular materials and inspiration to kids interested in space.

OneWeb’s social mission is traceable to its founder, Greg Wyler. After working in rural Africa, Greg founded O3B Networks (acquired by SES) to launch a network of medium earth orbit satellites to provide global broadband services. Wyler subsequently founded OneWeb, and also provided funding for Project Connect, which is attempting to map every school on the planet.

OneWeb’s ambitions for social good are enormous, but unfortunately so are its cashflow needs. A challenging economic environment as well as competition from SpaceX and Amazon may create challenges moving forward. Ideally OneWeb will succeed in building a successful business that helps connect the next million schools.