At a distinguished meeting of Internet founders in 1994, I suggested that the Net would have a billion users by 2000. Vint Cerf laughed in my face. Others rolled their eyes at what seemed vintage Negroponte hyperbole.
Of course, no one expected the Internet to take off the way it has. In fact, those who knew the most about the Net were the most conservative. They knew just how hard it would be to create the technical infrastructure, to invent the appropriate business models, and to proliferate the necessary number of computers. At that same meeting, Cerf estimated 2000 would see 300 million users - a milestone we'll approach in the Americas alone at current rates of growth.
Today, however, people still shake their heads at the number 1 billion. They see no way that the growth witnessed in recent years can be sustained for the next two, let alone five. They are forgetting the ROW - the rest of the world.
Developing developing nations
In the comfort of being digital, we forget the enormous leverage a single Net connection provides to, say, a rural primary school in one of the hundred poorest nations. In these places, there are no libraries and almost no books; the schoolhouse is sometimes a tree. To suddenly have access to the world's libraries - even at 4,800 bits per second - is a change of such magnitude that there is no way to understand it from the privileged position of the developed world.
But the ROW understands. World leaders realize that the most precious natural resource of any country is its children, and that the digital world is key to education. For this reason, development is starting not only to include but to mean telecommunications.
The (old) World Bank lent money to develop dams, roads, and factories, but rarely bits. The (new) World Bank, by contrast, is deeply committed to education, and I bet a great deal of the organization's energy will be directed into telecommunications infrastructure - not for phones, but for access to the Internet. This is where most of the billion users will come from by December 31, 2000.
The planets of change seem to be lining up. Take the privatization of telephone companies. Competition (not to mention technology) has proven that costs will plummet: sooner or later, every civilized place will have a low and fixed rate for unlimited local calls. This will completely change how children use the Net.
Yet, telephone rates are the most expensive precisely where they should be the cheapest - in the developing world. It is time to take celestial intervention quite literally. A combination of geostationary and low-Earth orbiting satellites - GEOs and LEOs - can and will change Internet usage in the ROW, especially for the more than 2.5 billion people who live in poor, rural areas.
GEOs are interesting because many of the orbital slots over places like Africa are underused, unused, or, frankly, wasted on broadcast systems. A 1 meter dish, of course, could make all the difference for a remote developing world school. That's now within reach, thanks to companies like Tachyon, which will soon sell a turnkey satellite link for US$2,700 - a price that promises to drop to $1,500 by the end of 1999.
In the long run, LEOs are even more interesting. The first LEO, Motorola's Iridium, will start service before the end of '98; its 66 satellites will circle the planet and, at least initially, be underutilized in developing countries. It is not hard to imagine the same satellite that was designed for an affluent, roaming cell-phone user being used by a poverty-stricken, stationary child - for bits.
In the past five years, developed nations have jockeyed for position in the digital world. Finland and Sweden are well in the lead in Europe, while their neighbors, France and Germany, have fallen increasingly far behind. In other words, the "Third World" five years from now may not be where you think it is. There have been many theories of leapfrog development, none of which has yet survived the test of time. That's about to change.