Report: Google wants to connect the developing world with wireless

Connected Africa

You might have thought Google’s gigabit fiber plans in the U.S. were big, but Google may have even bigger broadband ambitions in the developing world. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Google is working with governments and local regulators in countries all over Africa and Southeast Asia to build wireless networks that would connect the unconnected.

The Journal, citing unnamed sources, said Google plans to make use of white spaces, the spectrum between TV transmissions that many governments are allocating for wireless broadband use, as well as satellites and aerial transmitters located on balloons or blimps. Finally, Google is developing low-cost devices and processors that will allow even the most resource-limited populace to take advantage of those networks.

whitespaceThe Journal states Google aims to connect a billion or more people to the internet through the effort. That strikes me as a big exaggeration. If Google is working with the types of technologies the Journal listed, it would be working with very limited capacities. Satellite broadband provides a finite bandwidth at extremely high cost, and aerial platforms would be constrained by their backhaul – you can’t run fiber to a tower suspended in the sky.

White spaces definitely show promise, and Google has already begun trials of the technology in South Africa. Google may even be weighing the use of white spaces in its U.S. broadband strategy. But in most countries there’s a limited amount of spectrum available for white space transmission, and in general its use is limited to rural areas where there’s less chance of it interfering with TV signals. The Journal stated that Google is focusing its efforts primarily in rural areas, but if Google really plans to connect a billion unconnected people, it would also need to hit urban centers.

Still, even if Google’s plans is a quarter as ambitious as the Journal claims, it could have an enormous impact on the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 3G and 4G cellular is practically non-existent, which has led carriers like Airtel to invest heavily in cheaper unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi, and wireline broadband available only commercial centers.

Using these technologies, Google won’t be able to provide the broadband connections we in the U.S. accustomed to at home, work or on wireless networks, but for millions of people Google could provide their first internet connections.

White space image courtesy of Flickr user Cillian Storm.

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