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Global Broadband During a Global Pandemic: Interview with Jim Cashel

Jim Cashel, founder and chairman of Forum One, published The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband, and How That Changes Everything in June 2019. At that time, Forum One’s CEO, Chris Wolz, interviewed Jim about the book. Now, one year later Chris returns with an updated set of questions concerning global broadband and what has happened since publication.

Chris: Thanks for joining again, Jim. We spoke a year ago about your new book, the emergence of global broadband, and the planet-wide impacts that will have. What has happened in the last year?

Jim: Thank you, Chris. Two main things have happened since the book was released. 

First, the global pandemic has forced much of society — business, government, education, entertainment — to move online. That obviously only works, however, if you have internet access. About half the planet, astoundingly, still has no access. The pandemic brings added disruption for those communities without internet access and highlights the importance of broadband.

Second, a lot of progress has occurred with respect to new broadband technologies. Loon has begun commercial service in Africa and Latin America. Jeff Bezos has committed ten billion dollars to the internet satellite network called Project Kuiper. Most consequentially, SpaceX has now launched 500 communications satellites and plans to begin service trials in the coming weeks of its Starlink service in the US and elsewhere.

Chris: Are we on the verge of a large technical leap with respect to global broadband?

Jim: Maybe. The technologies, particularly the satellite technologies, are still unproven. There are a lot of details to work out with respect to spectrum, engineering challenges, business models, and consumer adoption. Things are moving fast, though. We’ll know a lot more later this year. I remain cautiously optimistic. 

Chris: Assuming that the technologies work, what implications does that have down the road for the nonprofit organizations and government agencies that Forum One works with, such as those that work in global development?

Jim: I believe there is a lot to do already, even before these technologies are fully proven. For example, the US Army has signed a multi-year R&D deal with SpaceX to investigate new Starlink capabilities. The Defense Department is likely to become a major customer of SpaceX. It currently pays Iridium, for example, over $100 million per year for satellite communications services. Starlink, with its low latency, should offer many services of interest to the military. 

The same sort of R&D effort should be of great interest to the development community, which also may become a major customer. Billions of people in developing countries lack connectivity. Traditional internet infrastructure (fiber optic cables, cell towers) is expensive. The World Bank, for example, has identified the requirement for $100 billion in investment just for Africa, just by 2030. Multilaterals, development agencies, and foundations should be working with SpaceX (and soon others) to explore opportunities for health clinics, government offices, schools, and other organizations in using Starlink across the developing world.

Chris: That’s a lot. How would you prioritize?

Jim: You’re right. You can’t do everything at once. I would prioritize schools. If a community doesn’t currently have connectivity, a good first place to connect is a school: there is clear value in connectivity, new services can be coupled with education, kids are quick adopters, and schools tend to be politically popular.

One clear opportunity will be for the satellite services like Starlink to partner with Giga, a UN project that is building a database of every school on the planet. With this data, it is easier to prioritize schools, implement programs, and track progress.

Chris: This all sounds really encouraging. But are there things that concern you?

Jim: I remain concerned about the issues I describe in the book. On the one hand, if internet expansion remains slow, then billions of people on the planet will not be able to meaningfully join the world economy and world community. On the other hand, as connectivity arrives in new regions, there are immediate concerns about fraud and violence. The experience of Myanmar illustrates only too clearly that the internet can be quickly weaponized by malign forces. Facebook in particular has a major role to play in anticipating and minimizing fraud and violence. Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram) dominates online communications in most developing countries. It works hard to address issues, but it still isn’t clear if it will get on top of the major challenges it creates.

Addressing challenges also doesn’t just fall on Facebook. Development organizations in particular have an important role to play in making sure online fraud and violence aren’t widespread.

Chris: In your book, you talk mostly about global implications of an expanded internet. What about the US?

Jim: The pandemic has shined a light on how incomplete internet coverage is in the US. I live near San Francisco, many ways ground zero for the internet. Yet in my community of Sonoma, many rural areas have no connectivity, many families weren’t able to join as schools moved online, and where there is service it is often spotty, expensive, and slow. Having more competitive options for connectivity will only be good. SpaceX recently reported that over 700,000 people in the US have signed up to beta test Starlink.

Chris: Has anything surprised you over the past year?

Most things have played out as I anticipated in the book — except the pandemic, of course. New technologies are getting a lot of attention, and there remains much uncertainty around policy issues, engineering issues, and business model issues. 

What continues to not get attention, however, is that if these technologies do work — and they are almost certain to work at least at some functional level — then the path is clear for bringing billions of people online for the first time. That is a huge story of historic consequence. It is also reason for great optimism. 

I still believe that The Great Connecting will play out as one of the major stories of our generation. The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband, and How That Changes Everything is available through your local bookseller or via Amazon.

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