In 2015 we saw a number of global connectivity projects from Facebook, Google, Qualcomm and Virgin. The aim of these projects has been to reach out to countries through satellite and other technologies where previously internet had been non-existent or very slow and only in major cities.

This is an exciting time as it means the number of internet connected beings could grow from 3.2 billion to the 7.4 billion people that make up the global population. This has got us thinking; what does this mean for global companies? How will it affect the way in which we communicate? How will it transform education in countries that don’t yet have wide spread internet? In the first part of a series on global connectivity, we look at the technology and introduce the implications wider access may have across the world.

The internet is a great way for connecting us to information, resources, services and the rest of the global population. However there is a huge divide between the connected and the non-connected world which mainly falls down to the developed vs. developing world. 78% of the population in the developed world is online compared to just 32% in emerging economies. The rate at which the world is connecting to the internet is also slowing down. From 2010–2014 the growth declined from 14.7% to just 6.6% and it’s expected to drop further unless we come up with a new solution for connecting more developing economies to the internet.

Why the need for global connectivity?
In rural communities, internet access can make a huge difference as these areas lack infrastructure, public education services, healthcare and emergency services. By having access to the internet it could mean better access to online healthcare, education and just general information. For example farmers can use weather information to help harvest and increase yield for a bigger income. And 1 in 3 children, who don’t currently have access to secondary schools, could have access to an education.

A report released by Deloitte in April 2014, found that increasing global connectivity to 4 billion people could enhance productivity by as much as 25% in developing countries. This resulting in an additional $2.2 trillion GDP, a 72% increase in GDP growth rate and 140 million new jobs. Personal incomes could increase by $600 a year, lifting 160 million people out of extreme poverty. It would also mean another 640 million children may have access to the internet and an online education. The report concludes, internet access spurs innovation, creates new business, expands access to markets, improves job efficiencies and increases access to capital, all of which drives GDP and in turn increases access further.

Whilst trying to come up with a solution, companies, governments and NGOs need to overcome three barriers; affordability, infrastructure and relevance.

Even whilst many people may have access to the internet, they may not be aware of it or there is very limited relevant content in their primary language. According to a report from Facebook in order for us to provide relevant content to 80% of the world’s population, we’d have to have sufficient content in 92 languages. Even so, in locations such as India there are 425 spoken languages, only 23 (including English) of which are designated ‘official languages’ so that means we could potentially need even more!

A lot of developing countries are also still struggling to actually build enough classrooms to educate everyone in – let alone enabling internet connectivity. How are these countries supposed to have access to and afford technology and data usage if they haven’t yet got access to electricity and the hardware needed to connect up?

The technology
Google’s first attempt at addressing global connectivity is Project Loon. Project Loon involves sending balloon-like structures up into the earth’s stratosphere. The earth’s stratosphere contains many layers of wind. These layers each vary in speed and direction, meaning when adjusted a little, the balloon can use the winds to move around the stratosphere to where they need to go for a better coverage. Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area of up to 80 km in diameter using wireless communications technology LTE. By connecting with other telecommunication companies to share cellular spectrum it enables people to connect to the network directly through their phones and other LTE-enabled devices.

An alternative to Project Loon is Facebook’s Aquila, a solar-powered drone that will provide internet access in remote parts of the world. The solar-powered drone will be able to fly without landing for three months at a time, using a laser to beam data to a station on the ground. The company plans to use a linked network of the drones to provide internet access to large rural areas. Similar to its Internet.org project, Facebook will be partnering with local ISPs to offer its services, instead of dealing with customers directly.

Why are they doing it?
Google and Facebook have created Project Loon and Aquila to be a faster, easier and cheaper way to give more people access to the internet. The aim of both projects is to increase global connectivity to 4 billion people, to give children who haven’t got access to schools an education and to help small business growth.

There are lots of advantages to these projects such as low maintenance, low costs and no installation fees, as they would require minimal infrastructure, making it more affordable. However both of these projects are still to be fully tested in real-world conditions. So there are still many issues they will need to overcome, including hardware failure which could affect airplanes, rockets and satellites if they end up in unwanted areas. It could also make it harder to bring them down to the ground.

Both Google and Facebook’s projects are cited as being ‘philanthropic’ and they say they have no intentions of making a clear profit from these particular projects. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that both Google and Facebook’s business models work best when high volumes of people are using their sites; for data access, content sharing and advertising. Increasing their knowledge of consumer behaviour and remaining dominantly ahead in online communication, coupled with the fact that their businesses are always looking for new ways to reduce their corporation tax – you can see why investing in internet infrastructure is a no-brainer. And with Facebook’s recent announcement on personalised learning, the tie-ins become even more clear.

How does it apply to education? Why is it important?
There are a couple of initiatives that are all tied together that we feel are important to highlight here:

World Bank Group’s 2020 education strategy – goal of education for all.
Silicon Valley has an aim to get 4 billion people connected to the internet by 2019.
United Nations 2030 sustainable development goals.

These worldwide initiatives are setting out to achieve global transformation in health, education, sustainable growth, businesses and infrastructure. Project Loon and Aquilla, if successful, could be an incredibly important part in helping to reach some of these strategic visions. And when applied to governments that are struggling to give education and access for all, you can see how potentially valuable online education could be. Affordable internet access (including a need for affordable devices) could give opportunity to educate through online resources, forums and training. Removing a lot of the expensive physical costs of education.

However, removing the physical aspect of education could also be argued as a bad thing. Schools in developing countries can mean more than just an education. They are often a vital resource providing access to water, meals, health, and social interaction. They can also provide a wider range of opportunities for children. And so taking away the experience of a social education could have a negative comeback.

In this first post we’ve introduced the technology and the potentially positive impacts it could have. We’re now inviting you to respond and let us know what you think. How do you think global connectivity will impact education?