In the coming decade there is a whisper, sometimes growing to an audible level, that perhaps our efforts to bring the internet to LDCs–some from, any form of the internet–will finally be achieved. The problem with the traditional method of achieving this–wiring “down to the last mile” to ensure everyone has equal access–is that we ignore two basic laws about technology: 1) if you can see it, you can break it, and 2) if its going to take a while to implement, it will probably be obselete before it’s finished. Neither of these scenerios bode well for the multi-billion if not trillion dollar undertaking world leaders have promoted in the name of wiring their citizens for the 21st century.
On the first point, the argument is brief. Technology breaks. And the more parts, the more points of failure. In an LDC, by the twentieth mile, even if you have been concistently rolling out your network, expansion is exponential and you may soon realize you do not have enough technicians to maintain your network. In this event, having a wired network is promoting a liability. Costly to install, costly to maintain.
The second point of the argument is the real key. Recent advances in cellular broadband have created networks that rival, and in many cases, surpass even the wired connections of the most developed of countries. Further, building on a cellular network means that, unlike municipal wifi, having wide areas covered while allowing multiple users to connect simultaniously has already been proven. In the Technology Review article “LTE-Advanced Is Poised to Turbocharge Smartphone Data“, LTE-Advanced, the next generation of mobile internet, averages 223 Mbps (mega-bits per second) in tests. For comparison, the FCC’s plan for America’s “high-speed” internet (read “Conclusion and Next Steps” following the link) is by 2020 to ensure that “100 million homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of […] 100 Mbps”. According to the Technology Review article, AT&T, among other US carriers, is planning to test LTE-Advanced by the end of this year. If developing countries were to invest in say this technology over costly copper (or even more costly but proportionally “future-proof” fiber optic) cables, they would see a network more than double the “best case scenerio” for the average American internet connections by the end of the decade.
But why commit to a wireless network in the developing world? Even in countries where modern, higher-speed internet has reached high levels of penetration, there is the issue of next generation technology. What is considered fast internet today may work for youtube and twitter, but the Next Big Thing may one day soon require an even more robust network than what these countries currently offer. What incentive is there to spend the time or the money to essentially re-do the networks, including the daunting task of uprooting and re-burrying all new cables as copper gives way to fiber and beyond? Mobile has already been crowned the future of computing. Intel has announced the end of its production of desktop motherboards, Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, is touch-centric and designed to be best experienced on tablets rather than traditional PCs–the future of internet may come in the form of a network that thrives off of devices that are never stationary. In this scenerio, even the first mile may never be wired again.