The digital arms race is here. In this race, it won’t matter who is right, but who is left. The last man standing. And, in this impending digital apocalypse, the clear favourite is Facebook. It’s been over a year since the social networking giant embarked on a very ambitious mission: a mission to connect the remaining two thirds of the world to the internet.
It isn’t only Facebook who is making significant strides. Other internet giants such as Microsoft and Google are embarking on the same journey of finding the next gold-mine of internet users in frontier markets. Microsoft through its 4Afrika project wants to leverage redundant radio and TV spectrum to bring internet connectivity to rural Africa through Whitespaces. Google is using internet-serving balloons to achieve the same, alongside digging fibre-cables and partnering with Chinese vendors like Huawei to produce budget smartphones. In partnership with the Chinese company Transsion, they’re also bringing $87 mid-level smartphones to Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, Kenya, and Morocco. Their Infinix Hot 2 devices are selling like hot cakes on Jumia in Kenya.
Facebook has seemed more aggressive than its competitors though with the Internet.org project. Over the last year, the company has worked closely with more than a dozen mobile operators across 17 countries in emerging markets in Africa and Asia to give people access to relevant zero-rated internet services. Today Internet.org is available to more than a billion people. African countries where Internet.org has been launched include Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Senegal, Zambia, Ghana, Angola and Malawi. Uganda and Rwanda seem to be next in the line.
The drone cold war
There is a fierce competition between Facebook and Google. Each is on a mission to dominate the information age. The war is in the stratosphere, with hoisted low-cost satellites and high-altitude drones beaming internet signals on earth in remote areas.
In April 214, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based drone maker which Facebook had courted for a reported $60 million. Apparently Google raised a higher value and snatched the drone company from Facebook. But Facebook’s resolve never faltered. It started the Facebook Connectivity Lab, a hacker program that’s tasked with building drones, satellites and lasers. The social-networking giant bought a UK-based company, Ascenta, which is designing high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can fly for weeks, as Zuck revealed in a Facebook post.
People from remote areas are not to be owned and ploughed just because Zuck & Co. are looking at their long-term bottom lines
The fact that there are no drone regulatory laws in many parts of Africa (South Africa being an exception) makes Facebook’s venture even more plausible. Even though putting up the necessary infrastructure for global communication is going to be extraordinarily high, the highway seems to have already been set. And apparently, it’s paved with good intentions.
Philanthropy or Pseudo-philanthropy
In a continent ravaged by abject poverty, disease and many other pressing ills, sceptics argue that the least Facebook and other faceless corporations could do is to grease the squeaky wheels before proceeding to tuck the next billion onto the internet grid.
Perhaps, supporting energy projects on the continent could be more aligned to their long-term objective: to connect the remaining two thirds of the world to the internet. For me, it is a euphemism for serving the next billion people more adverts. The resolve is unrelenting. As research shows, countries producing more energy are having a commensurate growth in their economies. In the same vein, pundits forecast a global shortage in food and groundwater; that should be more worrisome than a lack of internet connectivity.
Zuck and other tech giants have no idea what it means to come from frontier markets; to live on bare minimums and still persevere. The constant state of uncertainty – whether you’ll have a meal or whether your humble abode is safe from land-grabbing barons. It’s a constant state of war. Navigating the relentless obstacles to living an acceptable life is in no way close to gambling your way around Candy Crush Saga.
It becomes a case of two elephants or more tussling it out – Facebook versus Google, Google versus Microsoft and so on – and it’s the grass that suffers.
One’s about real life; the other’s about augmented life. The difference is stark. People from remote areas are not to be owned and ploughed just because Zuck & Co. are looking at their long-term bottom lines. When people are treated like data points in an echelon of power of competing giants, then it’s a totally different ball game. It’s no longer a case of David versus Goliath, where David has a chance of winning, however minuscule it is.
It becomes a case of two elephants or more tussling it out – Facebook versus Google, Google versus Microsoft and so on – and it’s the grass that suffers. But there are some advantages resulting from this stiff competition such as subsidies in form of low-cost data plans, low-cost smartphones among others.
In defence of Internet.org, for example, is this solid treatise. The market for tech companies’ products and services is nearing saturation and it therefore does not make sense to retarget advertising efforts on a population that is already aware. Research shows that the highest numbers of smartphone sales are happening in underserved markets in India, Philippines and the like. Mary Meeker’s 2015 report about internet trends places Nigeria in the second position of the highest mobile usage subscription, a relatively small margin away from first-placed India, although both are emerging markets.
The internet is a platform potent for innovation and disruption in the world.
The business case to take services in these hard-to-reach areas is thus valid. The highway to the market is the internet. From time immemorial, the human race has been a work in progress, never settling and always looking for the next new thing, be it in fashion, sport, music, or technology. The internet is a platform potent for innovation and disruption in the world. That is why this generation is called the information age.
Information is power and data is some sort of currency. Those who win are the gatekeepers of invaluable information. And Facebook is poised to take that role. But it’s not all roses.
The opposition are ready to pick a fight. The most pointed jabs were from Evgeny Morozov’s New York Times op-ed. It’s hard to tell whether the access is unbiased or whether that huge metallic thing lurking in the heavens is more than just an internet-serving drone (after finding out that it’s neither a bird nor a plane).
And mostly it’s hard to tell whether the next billion users these internet giants are fighting for are not just chum in the techno-corporate machine. I just hope that these unsuspecting new users will not be used to make tasty sausages for advertisers.
Clumsy elephants or canny humanitarians? Follow the conversation at #TRUEAfrica.