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Can Google, Facebook Tackle Biggest Roadblock to Affordable Internet for All?


Alliance for Affordable Internet founders say it's not money that's needed, but changes in government policy in each of the nations that currently are way down on the list of affordability.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet sounds like one of those high-minded but futile ideas that go nowhere, slowly. But then again, maybe it's not. And the stakes are so high, for both the technology industry and for Civilization with a capital "C," that it's got to be worth a try.

More than a billion people, about 60% of the world's population, still lack access to the Internet. Most of them live in the developing world.

There are a number of projects devoted to changing that, from, a non-profit founded by Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) Mark Zuckerberg, to Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) wicked-cool launch of Internet signal-bouncing balloons.

But it seems that all of those efforts attack only one of two big problems that prevent the whole world from getting on the Internet, and that is technical infrastructure, or the lack of it across vast stretches of the world.

The second problem is proving more difficult to address, and that is affordability. People in the developed world pay about 1.7% of their monthly incomes on average for broadband Internet service. In the developing world, it costs 30% of the average household income, placing it essentially out of reach of all but the elite.

So, logically, making the Internet affordable would take buckets of money, subsidies from somewhere, and that's surely not going to happen.

But the founders of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, which launched this week, make a case that it's not money that's needed, but changes in government policy in each of the nations that currently are way down on the list of affordability.

Changing policy is no piece of cake, either, so this group had better have a pretty big name attached to it.

And as far as the Internet goes, no name resonates quite like that of Tim Berners-Lee, the British-born inventor who created the World Wide Web and then gave it away to us all. "Sir Tim," actually, since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004.

Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation, founded in 2009, will serve as secretariat for the new alliance.

In addition to some international public agencies and non-profits, the Alliance includes the American corporate names that have the biggest stake in bringing the Internet to the furthest corners of the Earth, like Facebook, Google, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO).

But its honorary chairperson is Dr. Bitange Ndemo, whose name might not be as recognizable as Berners-Lee's, at least outside Africa. But in Kenya, he's known as "the father of broadband" for leading an effort that made his nation one of the world's most wired.

In an article for, Ndemo points out that the smallest tweaks in government regulations or policies can bring about substantial change. For example, Colombia cut taxes on personal computers, spurring a 466% increase in Internet adoption there from 2005 through 2008. The Latin American region as a whole saw adoption rise 161%.

The goal of the alliance is to bring average Internet costs down to 5% in the developing world. The first three countries it is targeting for change are in Africa. Despite Kenya's success, only 16% of Africans have Internet access today.

There are problems, of course, that none of the above-named organizations or companies are likely to tackle in the near future. Such as the fact that far fewer women than men in the developing world have Internet access. Or the attempts at censorship in countries such as China, and the total black holes, like North Korea.

But it's a start.

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