When I arrived in a West African newsroom last year to help with a journalism training initiative, one of the first things to come up was my BlackBerry Bold.
Despite what the foolish #firstworldproblems hashtag on Twitter would have you believe, my phone was probably the most out of date there. Everyone else in this Ghanaian newsroom was using Android smartphones from Samsung and HTC. A few people had cheaper Nokia Asha smartphones. There were a couple of iPhones and when the Samsung S4 came out a few months later at least one popped up. That's not to say everyone had a smartphone, or that there wasn't hardship. But mobile Internet connectivity – with the exception of our unstable WiFi – was not the issue. Indeed, everyone was constantly connected with the now Facebook-owned WhatsApp – to the extent that journalists would update their editors with it.
There were plenty of mobile carriers offering decent service: Vodafone, MTN, Glo, Airtel and Tigo. In fact, I'd even say it was more competitive than the situation we have in Canada, which has foreign ownership restrictions and an unstable regulatory environment for overseas investors. In Ghana, well-resourced foreign providers came in, did the gritty work of building up infrastructure (in a power outage-prone region where sometimes each cellular tower needs to be powered by trucked-in diesel) and genuinely tried hard to win customers from other providers. That's not to say they were always successful: Some dropped service occasionally or had billing problems, and some carriers were better known for providing coverage outside of the bigger cities, but those problems are global. (The worst, most borderline-racist part of the #firstworldproblems hashtag is the implication that somehow Africans don't complain about wireless service or smartphones or laptops. Trust me. They do. Loudly.)
Let me be even more clear: The Internet already exists in Africa! With few exceptions, no matter where I went in Ghana, I got wireless service – and was even able to tether my laptop to my BlackBerry. All of these experiences, as well as quickly signing up for a pre-paid wireless service in nearby Nigeria, make me deeply skeptical about the much-hyped attempts by massive Western corporations to "bring" Internet service to Africans. Google is planning on floating balloons over unconnected parts of the continent. And now Facebook, according to Techcrunch, is looking at buying a drone company called Titan Aerospace to do much the same thing: Toss up solar-powered unmanned flying craft that will beam down Internet to remote areas – like something out of a remake of The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Now, there are several things that strike me about this.
First: I don't trust people in Silicon Valley to tell me what's happening elsewhere in California, let alone what's happening (or should be happening) in Africa. The steady stream of idiotic products that accompanies every sliver of innovation from the tech world is evidence enough of this. But every once in a while, international aid in the form of technology metastasizes into something particularly stupid – like Kony2012 – and the ideas gain outsized attention (and funds and credence) by playing on simplistic assumptions by people who know absolutely nothing about the situation on the ground. There are thousands of smart Africans already working in technology in Africa, and doing amazing things, and I don't hear many of them talking about balloons and drones (except those other sorts of drones).
Second: This is an international export of the libertarian ethos that tends to afflict innovators elsewhere in the Valley, such as PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who wants to build an independent island country (coincidentally, with someone who used to work at Google) or those promoting Bitcoin. Why do Google and Facebook want to soar over extremely complicated but opportunity-rich countries such as Nigeria, Mali and the Central African Republic? The answer is obvious: They want to avoid the messy realities on the ground. Presumably, they also want to avoid paying taxes. I spoke to a telecom infrastructure executive in Lagos, Nigeria, who was getting his towers blown up by Islamist extremists in Northern Nigeria. That's an unacceptable risk to most established corporations, outside of the energy sector. That's why most handset and Internet companies tend to do their encouragement of Internet adoption in Africa indirectly, such as funding innovation hubs like the Co-Creation Hub (CCHub) in Lagos, where I saw awesome developers making apps and software tailored to their country. Essentially, these companies are trying to reap the reward of encouraging more people to use their services, such as WhatsApp, without doing the messy work that carriers and handset makers such as Nokia and Samsung do; that is, actually setting up businesses on the ground, paying taxes that help fund development and social services, employing and training that nation's citizens, not to mention building real relationships.
Third: Like with the one-laptop-per-child idea and other lofty "connectivity" schemes, the ideas and goals of these types of ideas tend to misdiagnose the problem and then dramatically over-promise on results. By the time these plans come to fruition, everyone has generally moved on to something else, and the original euphoria is forgotten; in the cheap laptop case, the world moved on to tablets, and even that ended up being more complicated than originally promised. Elsewhere, people have already wondered whether the 3G wireless speeds on offer from these mystical balloons will even be able to compete in countries like Kenya, where most places already have 3G. That's not to say that these schemes aren't without merit. Surely, there are some people living in remote villages in certain parts of particular African countries who don't have Internet access. But do they even have a cellphone? Is their problem really connectivity? As Bill Gates suggested, "When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you." And though that's a tad paternalistic (he probably thinks the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help them), how soon until a tower is built up on the nearest hill? Will the addition of free connections kill the business case and drive off wireless companies operating in or looking to expand to countries where risk is already extremely high and the margins already assumed to be low? Will those connections be secure, reliable and fast-enough for African businesses to rely upon, or simply for the odd WhatsApp message that will help no one but Facebook? It just sounds like the U.S. technology industry has begun to ape the international development sector, which often acts with good intentions but generally accomplishes less than they set out to, and sometimes actually distorts and kills market conditions that would have otherwise provided that service.
Four: To wireless carriers, this must seem like the telecom equivalent of dumping a bunch of excess grain into a poor country's marketplace and putting that country's farmers out of business for good, leading to more shortages and eventual dependence. Carriers, some of them foreign but some of them local, have been in many of these markets for years, providing for a fee services that companies such as Google and Facebook now want to provide for free. And they are big local employers (in Ghana, I was told Vodafone was the largest private employer), as well as taxpayers. Content companies and carriers have always had a complicated relationship (just look at the amount of traffic Netflix chews up on most networks), and this seems like a continuation of that tension. I doubt many global wireless executives operating in emerging markets are shaking in their London or Johannesburg headquarters at balloon and drone schemes. But it must strike some of these grizzled industry veterans as rather too-sweet-of-a-deal, to drift by in the skies at the last moment and hoover up the purer profits without having to tell shareholders that you lost a tower or two because of terrorists or lost a whack of money because the currency collapsed or had to do something truly crazy like pay taxes.
Again, don't get me wrong. If this enfranchises people with connectivity that they never had before (and can actually utilize), then this could be a great opportunity – either for Facebook and Google to provide the connectivity on their own, or to startle carriers on the ground into extending service deeper into rural areas, more rapidly, thereby achieving the same thing. But we've heard ideas like this before, and they almost never turn out to be more than a catchy headline. And this time it's coming from companies that are trying to convince the financial markets that there is growth out there, beyond the hills in the places where none of them have ever travelled – in the lands where people use WhatsApp.