Years before big technology companies like Google and Facebook began talking about using balloons, drones and cellphones to provide Internet access to billions of people in developing countries, leaders like President Bill Clinton were talking about bridging the ''global digital divide.'' And while progress has been made in recent years, most of the world's 7.2 billion people still do not have access to the Internet.
The good news is that most of humanity now lives within reach of wireless networks. About half of the world's population, or 3.6 billion people, had cellphone service last year, up from 2.3 billion people in 2008. And one-third of all people used mobile networks to connect to the Internet last year. Two main forces have made this possible: rising incomes in developing countries and cheaper wireless devices and service.
The most important thing world leaders can do to make the Internet available to more people is to pursue faster and more equitable economic growth. At the same time, improving access itself can help economies grow by making knowledge more widely available. There are numerous private efforts underway that aim to make Internet access universal.
Google is working on Project Loon, which uses a constellation of giant balloons to beam down wireless signals in the Southern Hemisphere. This will be most useful to people living in remote areas without terrestrial cellular networks. And Facebook has introduced Internet.org, which provides people in some countries, like Kenya, Colombia and India, with access to limited text-based content on their cellphones at no cost; Facebook and searches on Google would be included. The company seems to think that this will encourage some people who are already using cellphones to create a Facebook profile and consider paying for data plans by giving them their first taste of social networking and the Internet.
The big gains will come only when governments do more to increase investments in telecommunications directly or by encouraging private companies to build networks. The most certain way to do that is to foster competition by, for example, selling wireless frequencies to many different companies. This has been happening in places like India.
Other countries, including those in the European Union, have helped to spur Internet adoption by requiring telecom companies to share cables and other equipment with one another. Of course, many dominant state-owned or private phone companies will resist policies intended to encourage competition.
Making the Internet useful will require more than just equipment and networks. Many pages on the web are available only in English or a few other widely spoken languages like French and Mandarin, while billions do not speak those languages. Companies like Google and Facebook have invested in providing their sites in many languages and have offered free translation tools.
The World Wide Web Consortium, which is made up of universities, businesses, government agencies and other groups, is also trying to make the Web usable in more languages by making sure Internet formats and protocols work in different scripts. Governments and businesses should help those efforts by publishing educational, health and other information in more languages.
Bridging the digital divide is not quite as daunting as it once seemed. But neither is progress moving fast enough to allow billions of people to use a communications system that has become indispensable to the modern economy.
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