Right now, you’re likely paying an internet service provider (ISP) directly for the privilege of accessing the internet, or you’re accessing it with a data plan from your telecom provider. If you’re lucky, it might be an extra perk of the property you’re renting, or you might get away with leeching off a roommate or neighbor.
But in the future, we may not have such an arrangement. We may all have access to some level of free internet access, much like we have access to public roads and highways, including those of us in isolated rural areas or developing countries.
So just how far off is this reality, and how could universal internet develop?
Why Universal Internet Access Is Important
Let’s start with why universal internet access is important. This is about more than just making internet access free. In fact, in 2016, the United Nations made a declaration that internet access is a basic human right. Last year, we hit a major milestone, with 50 percent of the global population having access to the internet—but read less optimistically, that means half the world doesn’t have access to a basic human right.
The internet provides three core elements of value:
- Information access. People need to access news stories, and information on common topics like health matters, history, and politics.
- Opinion expression. In areas where outspoken criticism of the government is dangerous, the internet provides a medium for individual expression and engagement.
- Communication. The internet also connects people across vast distances, enabling conversations with family members, friends, or strangers in other countries that might otherwise be impossible.
In developing countries and rural areas of developed countries, the lack of access to these three fundamentals can lead to misinformation, unhealthy choices and developments, fewer educational and career resources, and isolation from the rest of society.
The Leap to 100 Percent
Some companies and organizations have been researching ways to make the leap to 100 percent global internet access. For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has official approval to launch more than 7,000 satellites into space, specifically designed to provide internet access across the world. This is but one regulatory hurdle necessary to cross before the plan can be put fully in action, however. Google and Facebook have made similarly minded attempts to provide global internet access, with Google’s Loon project working, in concept, to beam internet access via hot air balloons.
The trouble with these plans is that they take time to develop, and they rarely work as well in practice as they do on paper. Each of these companies is facing significant regulatory and logistical hurdles to get their ideas launched.
So what else is stopping universal internet access from developing?
- Moonshot limits. Tech companies looking to provide 100 percent internet coverage in one fell swoop aren’t necessarily misguided, but this is a particularly challenging approach. Whether you’re trying to launch a network of satellites or a fleet of hot air balloons, these technologies are new and somewhat unpredictable, and the world is an enormous place. It will take years, if not decades, to polish these unfinished technologies and get them to a point where they can cover the entire world’s population.
- Remote areas. The United States is a leading country in terms of internet access, yet our rural populations are suffering. An estimated 39 percent of all rural Americans lack home broadband access, compared to just 4 percent of their urban counterparts. That’s because ISPs don’t see much value in rural areas; there aren’t many paying customers to appeal to, yet the costs of running new infrastructure to those remote areas would be significant. There’s no monetary incentive to go that extra mile, so it doesn’t get done, and rural Americans are stuck with low-speed internet access, shoddy reliability, or much higher costs than their urban counterparts. This remains a hurdle in the developed world, so it’s an even bigger problem for remote populations of developing countries.
- Governmental interference. Though the United Nations has agreed that internet access should be considered a right, not all national governments share that belief. Dozens of countries currently ban the internet, monitor their citizens’ access, or make conscious efforts to censor materials found on the web. Providing truly universal internet access would require us to overcome these governmental hurdles, which could prove difficult.
It’s hard to say when we could reasonably expect the development of universal internet access, especially since there are multiple ways it could develop. However, governments, companies, and organizations are working in tandem and across multiple mediums to make it a reality, so it’s only a matter of time. The next few years seem unlikely, but within a decade or two, we may end up far closer to this final goal than seems possible with our current knowledge.