Google, the US Agency for International Development, the UK Department for International Development, and the Omidyar network, a philanthropic organization run by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, have launched the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative to bring affordable internet access to billions of people around the world.
They are joined by a number of governments and tech companies from developed and developing countries including Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Intel, Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, African ISP MainOne, and Caribbean carrier Digicel.
The initiative is backed by Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation and headed by Dr Bitange Ndemo, former Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s ministry of information and communications, known for leading the significant fall of mobile phone charges in Kenya.
Roughly two-thirds of the world’s people is still unconnected to the internet. The A4AI coalition plans to steer countries toward policies and regulations that foster cheaper and better wireless and wired access to the Internet.
A fixed Internet connection in developing economies currently costs about 30 percent of monthly income. By advocating for open, competitive and innovative broadband markets, promoting favorable regulatory practices for telecommunications, and lowering import taxes on telecommunications gear, A4AI hopes to achieve its goal to reduce the cost of entry-level broadband access to less than 5% of monthly income worldwide.
The A4AI coalition members believe that policy reform, robust research and genuine knowledge-sharing, is the best way to make internet access cheaper in order to drive rapid gains in internet penetration.
The coalition has proclaimed the benefits of bringing Internet access to people in developing countries by narrowing the digital divide that slows progress in vital areas such as health, education and science. However high-tech companies that back the effort clearly see it as a means to grow their markets in poor countries.
Given the fallout from recent revelations of spying by western countries -- primarily the United States, Britain and Canada -- on developing countries via the internet, the A4AI plan to expand the internet in developing countries poses a challenge to the BRICS countries plan to develop an alternative internet (the BRICS cable), that is somewhat walled-off from the current United States-centric internet.
The BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, constitute most of the population in the developing world. The A4AI initiative to spread the United States-centric internet runs counter to the BRICS countries effort to build an alternative internet that is walled-off from it.
Some see the BRICS Cable model of "cyber sovereignty" as conceivably empowering authoritarian states' ability to monitor their citizens’ online activities, hampering the free exchange of information online, and balkanizing the internet. But that view is debatable given revelations of widespread internet spying by the developed countries that target governments and people in developing countries.
Some western observers also see civil society based protest movement like the Right-2-Know Campaign against South Africa's "Secrecy Bill" as also taking aim at the high prices in the mobile telecoms industry in what could turn into an ongoing mass based protest.
Right to Know’s Mark Weinberg has been quoted saying the high cost of airtime and data undermines the democratising potential of the mobile network. He maintains that the cell phone companies in South Africa are ripping off the public. “We can’t have what the constitution promises us; our freedom of expression and our right to access information.
However Spying by the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand is fostering resistance and skepticism in developing countries, particularly the BRICS countries, to further penetration of the United States-centric internet.
The latest disclosures from former United States National Security Agency worker Edward Snowden reveal that Canadian officials told their US, British, New Zealand and Australian counterparts – the group reportedly known as Five Eyes -- that they had successfully monitored a communications network of the Brazilian mines and energy ministry.
In her speech to UN General Assembly on Tuesday, September 24, Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff raised the important security, personal freedom, and economic issues involved in the United States NSA internet spying on Brazil. She noted that: Personal data of citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information – often of high economic and even strategic value – was at the Centre of espionage activity.
After the latest reports of Canadian internet spying on Brazil were aired, President Dilma Rousseff took to Twitter and once again demanded change by the US authorities. Speaking at the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, Ms Rousseff said Brazil would adopt legislation and technology to protect itself from illegal intercepts. After the latest allegations of spying, she instructed the energy ministry to step up the security measures surrounding its networks.
A4AI and the BRICS internet are opposing forces shaping internet access in the developing world. It will be interesting to see how their efforts pan out.