By Jim Cashel
Over the past two decades at Forum One I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a front row seat to the transformative influence of the internet. Forum One’s hundreds of partners use online tools and information to promote health, education, global development, environmental programs, and other worthy pursuits in novel and consequential ways.
Amazingly, however, after 25 years of growth of the internet, half the planet still has no internet access. Fortunately that is changing quickly. Over the next 3-5 years, the internet will reach the 3.5 billion people currently without access. A number of new technologies — such as low earth orbit satellites, balloons, drones, and others — are hastening this extension.
This is a big story and one full of promise. To explore it further, I’ve taken leave from Forum One to spend this fall semester at the Harvard Kennedy School as a Visiting Fellow. While on campus I’ll be researching broadband extension in the developing world and its impact on media.
I’ve gotten a head start in the research. Over the last six months I’ve spent time in a dozen developing countries that are just now getting broadband, or soon will be. I’ve also spent time in many of the tech firms driving broadband expansion, including Facebook, Amazon, and GoogleX.
It’s important to note that the half of the planet currently without broadband is the “poor half” of the planet, including many people living in poverty. The first time arrival of the internet offers many new opportunities, including better information, online health, distance education, mobile banking, and government services — all of which can be transformative for poor communities. The internet can also bring many problems, including hate speech, fake news, fraud, pornography, and much more. How can we make sure we take advantage of the opportunity and limit the peril? I’ll be exploring this quandary while at Harvard.
In some ways Forum One began at the Harvard Kennedy School: when I was a graduate student there, the internet was just starting to become consequential. Conversations with two of my classmates, Dave Witzel and Chris Wolz, eventually resulted in the founding of Forum One. We honestly had no idea at the time just how consequential the internet would become.
Today, the internet is about to reach the half of the planet that still doesn’t have online access. It’s great to be back at the Kennedy School to explore this topic, and contemplate the opportunities and consequences of the internet in the coming years.