Loon, Schools, Peru

Loon is the Alphabet company that uses high-altitude balloons to provide internet connectivity in remote areas. Over the past decade Loon balloons have logged over one million hours of flight time.

Loon is currently partnering with Internet Para Todos Peru to bring internet connectivity to 200,000 people in the remote Loreto region of the country. Loon has extensive experience with partners in Peru: initial testing began, in 2014, Loon provided emergency services during severe flooding in 2017, and again provided services following a 2019 earthquake.

Based on the population soon to be served in Loreto, there are likely several hundred schools in the region that will be accessing internet services for the first time.

Peru represents the second country, following Kenya, in which Loon is partnering with mobile operators to extend connectivity.

How Many Schools in the World Lack Internet?

The race is on to connect every school in the world to the internet. But how many schools is that?

The quick answer: nobody really knows. Data about number and type of schools in many countries are limited.

We can make rough estimates, however, extrapolating from data we do have.

In the US, in 2016 there were 98,277 public schools and 34,576 private schools, totaling 132,853 schools K-12. US population in 2016 was 323 million, or approximately one school for every 2,431 citizens. Using this ratio with a current global population of 7.7 billion, this suggests total schools worldwide in the neighborhood of 3.2 million.

This global figure might be too high: rich countries can afford schools more easily than developing countries. On the other hand developing country schools tend to be smaller in size on average, and median age in developing countries is much lower, so the figure might be too low.

GIGA has compiled detailed data on a number of countries. For example, the GIGA database shows Colombia, a middle-income country, to have 50,175 schools, or approximately one school per 1000 citizens. This ratio would suggest global schools totaling 7.7 million.

India in 2012 reportedly had 1.3 million schools, for a ratio of about one school per 1000 citizens. This ratio suggests global schools totaling 7.7 million.

China in 2014 reportedly had 514,000 schools, for a ratio of about one school per 2,600 citizens, suggesting global schools totaling about 3 million.

Triangulating from these figures, total number of schools worldwide is likely between 4 and 7 million. It seems reasonable to say conservatively that there are at least 5 million schools worldwide.

What percentage of those schools have internet access? In developed countries the percentage is over 90%. In middle income countries such as Colombia it is about half. In the poorest countries it is minimal. In 2019 overall broadband penetration was approximately 51% globally, according to the UN Broadband Commission.

Assuming urban schools are both larger and more likely to have broadband connectivity than rural schools, we can conservatively estimate about 40% of schools still lack connectivity. That is about two million schools.

Let’s work to connect the next million schools!

GIGA

School visualization in Sierra Leone

GIGA (formerly “Project Connect”) is a joint initiative of UNICEF and ITU with the ambition to connect every school in the planet to the internet. GIGA focuses on building a database of all schools, including information about location, size, type, and connectivity.

Project Connect was founded through an investment by Greg Wyler, the telecommunications and satellite entrepreneur who recognized that the goal of wiring schools would be hampered by lack of data about schools themselves. If countries don’t know where all schools are located – which is often true – then how can the schools be connected?

A working prototype of GIGA’s database visualization, including detailed data for a number of countries, can be found here.

In October 2019 Wired Magazine highlighted GIGA, as well as its leaders Chris Fabian and Sunita Grote, in its feature WIRED25: Stories of People Who are Racing to Save Us.

A number of other country initiatives are coordinating with GIGA. One notable example is the Digital Public Goods Alliance, supported by the Norwegian Government, which gathers open source technologies and resources of use to developing countries.

School Internet in a Time of Pandemic

My sister teaches third grade in Los Angeles. Her classes have now moved completely online. She is at a private school, and students have access to computers and bandwidth at home.

That is often not true. School districts across the US are scrambling to make sure students have devices and internet access. Some districts, including Philadelphia, are not moving classes online due to equity issues.

But what about the millions of schools across the planet that have yet to receive bandwidth? For them, moving online is not an option. Already weak instruction will now be completely suspended as countries impose lockdowns. Students without internet access will now fall further behind.

This likely will not be true in coming years. As broadband expands globally, particularly through LEO satellites, companies and governments will have the option to provide free or subsidized connectivity during crises (as is happening with telecoms in the US during Covid-19). Today the digital divide grows during a Pandemic. In the next few years that may not be necessary.

Prioritizing Schools

Over three billion people currently have no access to the internet — but soon will. In my 2019 book, The Great Connecting, I explore the profound opportunities and the daunting challenges that the rapid extension of the internet will introduce.

So how as a society do we best enhance the opportunities and mitigate the challenges? In the book I outline a long list of policy recommendations that governments, companies, non-profits and individuals can take. The more I was asked about this, however, on the book tour and in interviews, the more I decided there is one step that should take precedence:

Prioritize schools.

If an early adopter in a community is a school, that is a great way to introduce the power and promise (and peril) of the internet.

  • Schools can immediately benefit from curricular materials for teachers, and learning materials for students
  • Schools can train students (and the community) to effectively use online tools
  • Schools can teach the challenges of the internet
  • Schools can often provide devices (phones or tablets) for loan
  • Kids learn technology skills quickly
  • Schools tend to not be politically sensitive
  • Schools are respected institutions in the community

If the internet, as it arrives to a community, is perceived as helping students, that is useful. In contrast, if it is perceived as only bringing, say, gambling and pornography, that is a problem.

The extension of the internet to the half the world’s population currently offline is a world-changing event. And it will be much more effective if we intelligently and aggressively target schools.