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.

Future Posts

This blog has been developed in conjunction with the publication of The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband, and How That Changes Everything. Now that the book has been released, this blog will pivot a bit.

As I’ve traveled the US on a book tour, I’m frequently asked what we should prioritize in The Great Connecting. There are many reasonable answers, but my answer is this:

Schools.

If schools are first adopters, that is good. Schools can make immediate use of curricular materials. Schools can teach students (and the community) the promise and peril of the internet. Schools are respected institutions, and generally not political.

Or put another way, if the first usage of the internet in a community is for gambling and porn, that’s bad. If the first use is for assisting teachers and students, that’s good.

There are many initiatives underway that will facilitate broadband expansion across schools in developing countries. My efforts at this point will include assisting these efforts. I anticipate that I will focus on schools and broadband until Starlink is reaching developing countries — which should be in 2021. At that point there will be a lot to discuss!

Will Starlink Have a “Facebook Moment” (and not in a good way)?

sxIn 2017 Facebook discovered that bringing large populations online can lead to serious unexpected consequences. In that year it became clear that a sophisticated state actor had used Facebook to try to influence the 2016 presidential election. In 2017 it also became clear that Facebook had been used by malign forces in Myanmar to drive hate speech and violence against the Rohingya minority, forcing 700,000 to flee the country for safety in what has been called the first “social media genocide”. In 2017 the dimensions of the Cambridge Analytica scandal also became clear.

Facebook itself admits its 2017 awakening. Mark Zuckerberg said in April 2018, “We are an idealistic and optimistic company. For the first decade, we really focused on all the good that connecting people brings. But it’s clear now we didn’t do enough. We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm.”

Facebook’s global user base has grown to around two billion over the last 15 years. SpaceX Starlink has aspirations to provide broadband services to three billion people currently without internet, as well as many more in developed countries, all rolling out over the next several years.

It’s certain that providing broadband to billions of people currently without access will present unprecedented opportunities in education, health, finance, government services, and much more. (I recently wrote a book on this topic.) It is also certain that there will be prompt and complex challenges that Starlink will need to address. Facebook at this point requires a “State Department” level of policy expertise internally to deal with the complex societal issues that Facebook introduces. Starlink will too.

On the SpaceX careers page, it is interesting to note that almost all positions appear to be for technical and engineering roles. There don’t appear to be any that are focused on end users, developing market product development, local governments, policy issues, legal issues, partnerships, local security, training, event response, or other topics that will certainly emerge. (It is interesting to note that SpaceX competitor OneWeb lists a number of such jobs on its career page, as well as inviting feedback concerning future roles.)

SpaceX Starlink has the opportunity to reshape the planet, possibly even eliminate poverty. But if it repeats Facebook’s mistake of being driven just by engineering and optimism, it is in for a rude awakening.

Update on Project Kuiper

amazonAmazon has filed application documents with the FCC seeking permission to launch 3,236 satellites composing the Project Kuiper internet satellite network.

Amazon describes a satellite constellation at between 366 and 391 miles in altitude comprising 98 orbital planes of approximately 30 satellites per plane.

In addition to providing broadband services to over three billion people currently without internet, Amazon’s service also seeks to provide shopping, video streaming and Amazon Web Services access to existing and new customers.

Amazon claims that commercial services will begin once 578 satellites are in proper orbit (or about 18% of the full planned constellation).

Update from Loon

loonLoon, the internet balloon company that spun out from (Google) X, has announced two major updates.

First, a Loon balloon has set a new flight record with 223 days aloft. Loon has worked hard to extend the flight times of its balloons, which in turn lowers costs. Loon’s previous flight time record was 198 days.

Second, Loon appears close to providing commercial service in rural Kenya. It has now received permission from Kenyan authorities for commercial testing. If Loon is able to demonstrate its business model with Telkom Kenya, other service providers in Kenya and in the region can quickly adopt the service. Loon can launch and manage additional balloons relatively inexpensively, so scaling services should be possible.

Kenyans living in rural areas may soon have 4G access brought to them by stratospheric balloon.

SpaceX Launches First 60 Starlink Satellites

maxresdefaultSpaceX has successfully launched the first 60 Starlink satellites (following two initial test satellites last year). There is a lot of press covering this launch. The best review article I’ve seen is by Stephen Clark on SpaceflightNow.

Key points:

  • SpaceX has surprised the industry by launching 60 satellites. Most analysts were predicting a smaller number of satellites per launch. SpaceX is undoubtedly working to build even smaller, lighter, more powerful satellites, so the number of satellites per launch is likely to grow.
  • SpaceX reports it will launch between two and six more Starlink missions this year, depending on results from their initial launch. This suggests that hundreds more satellites could be in orbit by Christmas.
  • SpaceX claims an operational system requires 400 satellites, while a commercially viable system would require 800. SpaceX has the launch capability to meet those targets by 2020.
  • SpaceX used a booster that has flown twice previously (and has been paid for — twice — by other customers). The booster was recovered and will be assessed for future flights.
  • SpaceX landed the two fairing halves in the ocean and recovered them. The company appears to be exploring the reuse of fairings even if contaminated by sea water — which would allow SpaceX to drop efforts to catch fairings in a giant net.
  • OneWeb, SpaceX’s greatest competitor in satellite internet, is scheduled for up to 20 launches over the next two years. Each launch will carry up to 36 satellites.
  • Sixty satellites traversing the night sky prompted UFO alerts.
  • SpaceX launched a new Starlink website.

Satellite internet still has many technical, business and regulatory hurdles to overcome — but it just took a giant step closer to reality.

 

Satellite Internet Gets Serious

starlinkPlans to launch thousands of satellites to provide internet services across the globe haven’t gotten much attention in the past. The ideas sounded utopian. Past satellite internet efforts had failed. The leading firms (like OneWeb) were mostly unknown. Elon Musk has lots of detractors.

But three recent events have moved the topic of satellite internet from “speculative” to “probable” in many people’s minds.

First, OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in its current round of funding, a number hard to ignore. OneWeb has raised $3.4 billion to date.

Second, Amazon announced plans to launch a constellation of 3,236 internet satellites. Amazon has the technical acumen, resources, and (relatively soon) launch resources to be taken very seriously.

Finally, SpaceX announced that its first launch of Starlink Satellites will include 60 prototypes – a number two or three times higher than most anticipated for a single launch. The satellites are stacked on top of each other like cassettes (see photo above). Gwynne Shotwell, CEO of SpaceX, says that there will be up to six additional Starlink launches just this year.

There is a major race underway to essentially rebuild the internet in space. Most attention to this point is focused on the technology and economics of the race. But what will be the secondary and tertiary effects of a new internet reaching billions of people for the first time?

The Technocratic Oath

mdSilicon Valley moves fast. A major reason for the success of technology companies in the Valley is speed. The combination of talent, funding and experience found in the region gives many startups significant first-mover advantage as well as the ability to scale quickly.

And importantly, there is a pervasive obsession with speed. Companies launch “minimum viable products” that will “fail fast”. Facebook auspiciously encouraged staff to “move fast and break things”. The most important imperative is to get the product to market, receive feedback, fix bugs, and iterate.

This approach works great when you are launching, for example, software to link your phone to your car stereo.

But what about the major platforms that at current scale have major societal impact? What if “breaking things” represents major social disruption? It’s great if Facebook supports small businesses and enables photo sharing, but what if it also facilitates election tampering, hate speech, or in the case of Myanmar, genocide?

As Tom Wheeler describes in his latest book From Gutenberg to Google: The History of our Future, the greatest impact of new technologies generally isn’t their direct influence, but secondary and tertiary influences. Gutenberg knew that the printing press would facilitate communications, but didn’t know that it would facilitate the Protestant Reformation.

So how should technology companies, with their growing societal influence, think about their responsibilities?

Actually we know the answer: Primum non nocere.

Every medical student learns the Hippocratic Oath, an important part of which invokes “First, do no harm”. From day one students are taught that innovation in medicine needs to be coupled with responsibility for the well-being of the patient.

Thank goodness it is such. Could we imagine, for example, a major pharmaceutical company launching a new cancer drug that only worried about a “minimum viable product”? Aspired to “fail fast”? Sought to “move fast and break things”? It’s unthinkable. If a new ointment cures your rash but makes your skin fall off as a side effect, that isn’t good. Physicians understand that.

As such, medicine has both a culture and approach of considering secondary and tertiary effects of innovation at every step. Products are tested rigorously for side effects. The government spends billions monitoring drug safety. If problems are discovered, drugs or products are immediately recalled.

It is now apparent that technology innovation needs to be equally cautious. Sometimes the stakes are low: if my phone doesn’t link effectively to my car stereo, it’s not the end of the world. But when companies reach the scale and influence where they can facilitate crime, abet violence, or undermine democracy, the secondary and tertiary impact of their products absolutely need to be considered at every stage. This impact needs to be monitored. And just as with a rogue drug, dangerous technology innovations need to be recalled.

It’s time for the technology sector to take a page from medicine and agree to a “Technocratic Oath”.

What should it be?

For starters, it should include the words first penned twenty five centuries ago: “First do no harm.”