Connecting Africa with proceeds from ICANN's gTLD auction?

28 Nov

A social media boom begins in Africa
A Social Media Boom Begins in Africa (CC) Africa Renewal

 

Sascha Meinrath and Elliott Noss published an intriguing column yesterday in Slate entitled ICANN, Make a Difference. What they are suggesting, in a nutshell, is for the proceeds of ICANN’s upcoming generic top-level domain (gTLD) auction to be used to deploy mesh wireless networks in Africa and fast-track internet connectivity there.

I don’t understand ICANN’s inner workings or politics well enough to address whether funnelling the money generated in that way makes sense or is even feasible. I’m more interested in wondering if that could be done at all, assuming the amount of funding they mention (around $100 million) was available. A few years ago, for April’s Fool I posted a fake announcement that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had created a fund to deploy FTTH in Third World countries. It was a joke, of course, but as I quickly churned numbers, I realised that the amounts required to make such a plan possible weren’t actually that massive. Still, I was talking about $30bn as a third share of co-investment for a billion homes overall, so effectively a $90bn investment. Could the same thing be achieved with state of the art wireless mesh for 0.1% of that?

I think the technology works. Meinrath and Noss are not newcomers to this game. Noss operates a new and disruptive wireless operation called Ting that is currently making ripples in the US market, and Meinrath is an expert on wireless technologies, particularly technologies that circumvent traditional command and control network architectures. I’ll assume they’ve done their math and the funding they are speaking of can finance the technology for that kind of coverage (even though I have to admit I find that implausible).

The real question to me though is neither money nor technology. Even if you assume that both work, the core question would be “how the hell do you go about deploying something like that”. Established telecom players would clearly not be a workable vessel for this: they would be threatened by the cannibalization that such a solution so much that they would do anything in their power to shut it down. And in some third world countries (trying not to grossly generalize here), anything in their power can go pretty far indeed.

Furthermore, who would operate such a network and how would that network reconnect with the existing internet? Sure there are places in Africa where transit can be bought relatively cheap, and in fast there are more and more of these places. Still, we’re very far from a widespread availability of affordable transit, not to mention existing backbones to ultimately connect the mesh network with the rest of the world.

So color me very doubtful.

Still, I like the idea that some people are thinking heavy disruption. I would be surprised if something didn’t come out of this. At a time when many African countries are trying to wrest control of the internet with the (in my opinion misguided) idea of generating proceeds for their incumbent operators, this offers a radically different view that puts the need to connect people far above the need for legacy service providers to make money off the (too) few they currently connect.

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