The future of the Internet

29 October 2018

Interview with 

Peter Cowley, Angel Investor

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Chances are, you’ve used the Internet today. Whether you’re at work, doing some on-line banking, checking social media, or indeed reading this text, you’re connected to the online world. But over half of everyone on the globe doesn’t have access to the internet. And the growth of people coming online has slowed down according to a new report, with affordability sighted as a major blockade to progress.

To learn more Izzie Clarke spoke to tech guru and Angel Investor Peter Cowley to find out about the spread of Internet accesss...

Peter - Yes. It’s spread, of course, as you’d expect, in the developed world more. To give you some idea of the numbers, something like 98 percent of people are online in Iceland, about 85 to 90 percent in Australia, South Africa, US, and 75 percent in Japan but only 1.2 percent in Eritrea. So the actual access in Sub-Saharan Africa is going to be low digits, and the Un expected that to get to 100 percent by 2020. At the moment it’s still under 50 percent.

The reason these reports came out and we’re talking about this is because it’s actually slowing down, so it’s only about 6 percent a year. So the chances of it getting to 100 percent inside 30 to 40 years is pretty impossible. Where internet access is actually classed as somebody having access once every three months so, compared with us, the people in this studio for instance and the people listening that’s a tiny fraction.

Izzie - Why is access important though?

Peter - I think we all know that, as listeners to this programme, there’s all kinds of things that you can’t really do nowadays without some sort of internet access. Whether that’s education - not all education of course, but payments, booking tickets, etc. There is a study that actually deduced that for every 10 percent increase in internet access it’s linked to a 1.35 increase in GDP, so turning developing countries into developed internet access obviously contributes a tremendous amount.

Izzie - Why isn’t everyone online?

Peter - There are social things, certainly in the Sub-Saharan in Africa which is being concentrated on this report because women are not allowed to spend money on that. There’s obviously is a completely different dynamic between men and women in those countries, so having an asset isn’t allowed. A lot of the technological, the biggest issue, of course, is affordability. The cost of putting a mobile infrastructure in place in order to give access over the wireless, because you can't have copper in the ground for these sort of countries, is that there isn’t enough income coming in from those users to provide that. So what’s happens about that, basically, it’s got to be done with some sort of aid from other countries, which then leads to issues with other countries having control over these developing countries and all the political effects of that.

Izzie - Well, that’s what I was going to ask. What can be done? Is something happening to change all of that?

Peter -  Yeah. There’s assistance with things like regulation, with providing funding for submarine cables to some of these countries, etc. But there are two interesting technical projects here: one is called the Google Project Loon, which is very thing balloons sitting above an area at this 20 kilometer point where they move around slowly but not too fast, and they transmit from the ground up to the balloons and back down again - that’s one project. And then, of course, Elon Musk is doing this with spaceX he’s doing something and he’s put up many thousands of moving satellites which would float around the world at about 700 miles, 1100 kilometres above Earth, all interconnected. These two projects, of course, are being funded at the moment by the big tech giants but, in time, will be taken over and that will make a massive difference because half the population, 3.8 billion people, are not yet connected.

Izzie - So how important is universal internet access then? Does everyone need to be online essentially?

Peter - Well no. In fact, one of my children lives in Geneva and he’s got a group of friends who refuse point blank to be online, so they have smartphones without any data access, they use just voice and text messages. If you think of what’s happening in terms of many things you actually need, if you want to book an airline ticket with one of the cheaper carriers you’ve got to have internet access. It helps with payments, particularly in developing countries, which then helps with trade. It helps with people moving vegetables and fruit around the place. There’s a huge number of reasons why internet access is actually beneficial.

It has downsides, of course, as well, like with fake news.

Izzie - And so I guess, very quickly, is internet access even affecting our behaviour? I know there have been things about negatively, but also positively. I would imagine, like you said, if you could improve something like agriculture then internet access would be incredibly important towards behaviour?

Peter - Yeah. Payments, transactions, media consumption if that matters. Social interaction for people in some places it makes a massive difference. News, education. The downsides are addiction, which does occur. Fake news, attention span being shortened. Physical human interaction becoming less important. Is that good for the globe? Not sure it is. And, of course, lack of trust, that’s the big one. People are not necessarily trusting things that they meet on the internet.

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