Connectivity for the unconnected: a double bind

18 May 2016

During the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this past February, Facebook made an “historic” announcement that they were launching the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) in conjunction with a number of large telecommunications companies and manufacturers. The new initiative takes a page from another Facebook-led industry collaboration called the Open Compute Project [] and is all about vastly lowering the costs for telecommunications carriers to build new networks by creating inexpensive, open-source software and hardware. This level of collaboration between Facebook and major telecoms companies is unprecedented and signals a shift from what has traditionally been an adversarial relationship, at least publicly.

So what is this about? Why the collaboration all of a sudden? The answer is fairly simple. This initiative is about getting more people on-line by making it less expensive for traditional providers to build out their networks into places without coverage. Something like 6 out of every 10 people with access to the Internet use Facebook. So the company must focus not only on trying to turn 6 into 7 (growth in existing markets), but also on expanding the total number of people on-line (creation of new markets). An anecdote that I find useful here is to imagine a publishing house so successful that its main obstacle to selling more books is illiteracy. TIP is about Facebook finding ways to teach people to read. Companies like Google and Facebook simply need to get more people on-line and they automatically make money. This is why they are underwriting network rollouts and innovation, through project Link from Google and the TIP project that FB is coordinating. For the major telecoms companies the benefit of a project like TIP is that its stated aim is to make it easier and less expensive to set up new networks.

These two initiatives, Link and TIP are more grounded (literally) elements of both companies’ access and connectivity portfolios that are otherwise fairly cynical attempts to connect people to the Internet without actually involving them in the process. Think lasers, balloons, drones and so on. There has also been a quite a kerfuffle internationally about the Free Basics platform that Facebook has been fitfully rolling out, and prior to that around net-neutrality. Internet access for those who don’t have it “yet” and how to go about it is an issue with many facets and competing interests.

Talking to people who move bits from one place to another in Mexico (small ISPs, mainly), they claim that around 80% of the traffic their networks transport is related to Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. This is troubling in that, even with open standards and net neutrality in place, the web has been conquered to such a major extent by large companies. Perhaps, in some round-about way, it does make sense for these big companies to underwrite the construction of new networks. Yet the proposition is a scary one. Imagine the control these companies have and continue to amass when they not only control the content platforms but the physical infrastructure over which data is transported as well.

When we talk about access or connectivity, about getting more people on-line, what are we really talking about and what can we expect? As time goes on, the “Internet” has become more and more about serving content to users than about peer-to-peer sharing, as in the salad days of the early, more peer-to-peer internet. As some have argued, the internet is increasingly becoming like TV – a tool of mass media – yet more insidious. Early theorists about the development possibilities of mass media are not wrong in saying that TV or radio is useful for this purpose. But as those media have shown, and the internet as a new form of networked media is showing, much of what mass media delivers is mediocre at best and perhaps even culturally damaging. The negative impact of these media is more palpably disruptive to people from non-western cultures, who very rarely get a hand in creating or distributing their own content in their own languages. In many cases, especially in countries where technology is imposed as part of foreign aid or wholesale reform packages, information and communication technologies act as vehicles for the rationalization of society through the introduction and bolstering of market logic. In this sense, the mere existence of mass media and networks lays the cultural and economic groundwork for their own perpetuation.

So while access to information is a good thing, what is the baggage connectivity brings along with it? Probably the most harmful is the opening up of marginalized and generally “non-essential”, peripheral people and places to data mining and surveillance. The economic value of reaching new populations is difficult to quantify but certainly substantial. Economics aside, though, there is an undeniable geopolitical value for those in power in aggregating and analyzing behavioral data in the poorer parts of the globe where unrest is most common and likely.

In a broader context, telecommunications services are treated as a good or service, and so ensuring these goods are offered in the market is of utmost importance as this generates revenue directly for the companies that provide the services to customers. Secondarily, as these services or goods exist within a market-based global system it is also worth considering their usefulness in facilitating international commerce. In fact, one might argue convincingly that our current world market could not exist in any recognizable form without digital communications infrastructure. In this sense, telecommunications have become – and perhaps always were – a strategic sector with regards to the furtherance and reproduction of global capitalism. And so the “system”, as it were, ensures that these networks exist and reach where necessary.

There is a strong argument to make that a third way in which telecoms underpin global capitalism is through the facilitation and expansion of state surveillance and corporate data-mining. Over the past couple decades we have witnessed the construction of an unprecedented surveillance apparatus that threatens the fundamental rights of all people, and that creates an environment of panoptic repression and control. This is good for those in power who want to stay there as well as for gathering consumer information and feeding increasingly “intelligent” corporate algorithms.

With respect to expanding communications in rural areas, there has historically been a tension in that it is not economically viable to provide telecommunications services with an eye towards profit in many places on earth and yet, as argued above, for reasons of national security and the growth of capitalism, it is necessary to incorporate ever larger areas and populations. The special treatment of telecommunications is evidenced by the nearly endless litany of studies and news items proclaiming that there are more people with mobile phones than access to clean drinking water or sanitation facilities, and that network infrastructure is already more pervasive than basic infrastructure (electricity, roads, housing, etc) in many places. Something seems off, when those on the margins can’t find a job or shit in a flush-toilet, but can access Facebook from their cell phone. The point here is not to moralize, but to understand why this is happening.

Traditionally, big telco companies pass the baton to governments in places where there is no direct profit motive and the latter steps in with digital inclusion strategies (many of which fail) and universal service funds (which are also abject failures). To wit, the US State Department started something called Global Connect to bring an additional 1.5 billion people online in developing countries. In Mexico, there is an office called the Coordination of the Information and Knowledge Society, who’s stated goal is: “Driving effectively the country’s transition to the Information and Knowledge Society, integrating the efforts of various public and private actors in this task, and drawing on all Mexicans to join this process”.

Essentially this is an example of how the State is responsible for ensuring the conditions for the expansion and deepening of the logic and economic model of neoliberal capitalism, which, if history is any indication, is not necessarily something people in rural areas want or will find beneficial. And now the aforementioned baton is being passed back to corporations, albeit of a different ilk as big internet companies like Google and Facebook are proclaiming their interest in dealing with the problem of rural connectivity, and are enlisting the help of large telcos. This troika of Big Internet, Big Telco and the State might just get internet to everyone on earth, but at what cost and in whose name? Unless we radically re-imagine networks: how they are built, managed and how people engage with them, there seems to be no way that pursuing increased connectivity doesn’t also do a whole lot of harm both directly and indirectly to the people it is meant to help.